Ukraine crisis impacting American domestic politics

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has profoundly changed geopolitics, reviving the threat of major power confrontations, while solidifying what had been a fraying Western alliance.

Likewise, this alters the dynamics of American politics, certainly in the short run, and conceivably a return to the cold War Politics that dominated much of American politics from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and collapse of global communism.

“The crisis puts foreign policy, front-and-center in a way that it hasn’t been in a long time,” Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster, told me. He noted that “our elections largely have been inward looking. The crisis certainly puts much more of a premium on foreign policy on the presidential level and raises questions about global security, America’s role in the world, and in relations with other countries.”

From 1945 through 1993 every president had military service, though Ronald Reagan was stateside during World War II. Since then, only one of five served in the military, George W. Bush in the National Guard.

The new realpolitik will include pressure for much higher defense spending and debates over the struggle between democratic and authoritarian regimes.

For now, it has boosted President Biden’s standing. This may offset or mitigate what I believe was Biden’s Achilles’ heel: Voters sense that he was weak and incompetent following the botched Afghanistan withdrawal last summer. That’s not why they elected him over Donald Trump. His strong and skillful leadership on Ukraine may enable him to regain some of those earlier, better poll numbers.

That’s a necessity for hard-pressed Democrats in this year’s midterm elections. The president’s job approval polling often is a leading indicator of his party’s fate in those contests.

On the other hand, the tough measures imposed against Russia, the world’s third largest energy producer will result in higher price increases, with consumers feeling it at the pump. Invariably, that hurts the party in power.

John Hamre, a former Deputy Defense Secretary and the CEO of the Center for Strategic International Studies, a leading foreign policy think tank, told me the invasion and China’s embrace of Russia is a “pivot point” that will shape politics in this century. He sees Russia as the junior partner in this alliance that “fundamentally has changed Europe’s understanding of their security.” The “significant changes” in the U.S. defense program, Hamre believes, will include military bases in Poland and Romania and a big boost in spending on NATO.

This likely will cause schisms in the Democratic ranks. Progressives have insisted that any increases in defense spending be accompanied by parallel increases in domestic spending. With the Russian invasion, this may no longer be politically tenable.

One example of how this crisis unravels defense plans was cited by Walter Pincus, the foremost journalistic expert on nuclear weapons. In his Cipher Brief column, he writes that it now will be “difficult” for Biden to follow through on his pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the American security strategy. That wouldn’t please some liberal Democrats, but Putin has made clear threats about using nuclear weapons.

On the surface, there may appear to be a bipartisan consensus, with all but the fringes of each party denouncing the Russian invasion and supporting Ukraine. I doubt it will endure.

Republicans last week were demanding the president ban oil imports from Russia. He did. Then they criticized him for higher energy prices.

There is no Bob Dole or Richard Lugar, the former much-respected top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who could work comfortably across the aisle. The Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cares about enhancing his own power and discrediting Democrats. Overall, Senate Republicans are heavily influenced, if not dominated, by Biden-hating conservatives.

On the other side, there is no Democratic foreign policy leader like Joe Biden, as a Senator, or even a John Kerry.

Just like Democrats, Republicans will endure their own divides in the new national security environment. This is crystallized in the battle between Democracy and the rise of authoritarianism.

There are more than a handful of right-wing Republicans who have embraced Trump’s fondness for authoritarian leaders of culturally conservative, predominately white countries, including Russia before the invasion. Even last week Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) was caught on video echoing the Moscow line that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinsky “is a thug,” and that government is “incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.” (After getting flak he tried to water down the attack.)

A particular favorite authoritarian of Trump and company is Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The Conservative Political Action Committee is planning to host a right-wing conference in Hungary this spring with Orban as the featured speaker.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags authoritarian regimes Authoritarianism bipartisan consensus Bob Dole Defense spending domestic spending Donald Trump Foreign policy high gas prices Joe Biden John Kerry Madison Cawthorn military spending Mitch McConnell NATO Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian oil imports Russian sanctions Ukraine

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