During the four-year period from 2016 to 2020, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell labored under the illusion he was using Donald Trump's tenure in the White House to achieve his own political ends. But all the while, Trump was stealing the Republican Party out from under McConnell.
That actuality was on full display again Wednesday during a speech McConnell gave in Kentucky.
“I’m amazed that the whole question of helping the Ukrainians defend themselves has become controversial," said McConnell, marveling at the isolationist tack his party has taken. “How many American personnel have we lost? Zero,” he remarked.
During the event, McConnell experienced another medical episode in which he appeared to freeze as reporters lobbed questions at him. But before that moment, he seemed perfectly coherent.
"Here we have a group of people fighting for their independence, dismantling the military of one of our biggest adversaries, and people think this is a bad idea," McConnell said. "Ronald Reagan would turn over in his grave thinking a Republican would feel it’s not important to stand up to the Russians."
Indeed, Reagan would, but the party of Trump couldn’t care less.
President Joe Biden has asked for an additional $24 billion to continue funding both the war and humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. The request will sail through the Democrat-controlled Senate, but whether House Speaker Kevin McCarthy can muscle it through his increasingly isolationist caucus remains to be seen. Regardless of whether he attempts to do so with a stand-alone measure or perhaps attaches it to another bill, McCarthy will almost certainly have to rely on an assist from House Democrats to push it through.
But the dynamic to key in on here is how the Republican base—which used to support war funding at nearly any cost—has parted ways with McConnell’s wing of the party and followed Trump, whose sycophantic deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin knows no bounds.
In July, a CNN/SSRS poll found 71% of Republicans oppose congressional authorization of additional funding to support Ukraine's war effort—a view also held by a 55% majority of Americans.
But Pew Research Center polling shows just how much GOP support for aiding Ukraine has fallen since Russia first invaded the country in late February 2022. By May 2022, just 17% of Republicans said the U.S. was doing too much to aid Ukraine, while 34% said we weren't doing enough and 30% thought U.S. support was about right. By June of this year, however, the percentage of Republicans saying we are doing too much to aid Ukraine had more than doubled to 44%, while the share of Republicans saying it wasn’t enough (14%) had fallen to less than half its previous number.
It's little wonder Ukraine funding became a contentious topic during last week's first Republican presidential debate, with Trump mini-me Vivek Ramaswamy pandering to the GOP base while old-guard Republican and former Trump-appointed U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley argued that continuing to fund Ukraine was absolutely in America's interests.
"The reality is that today, Ukraine is not a priority for the United States of America," said Ramaswamy, adding that he didn't want to send U.S. military resources abroad when they could be used "to protect our own borders."
Haley responded by urging both “moral clarity” and long-term strategic thinking.
"When you look at the situation with Russia and Ukraine, here you have a pro-American country that was invaded by a thug," Haley said, calling Ukraine the United States’ 'first line of defense."
She said that just 3.5% of the U.S. defense budget has been going to Ukraine and added that if Putin takes Ukraine, he has indicated Poland and the Baltics are next.
"That's a world war," Haley said pointedly. "We're trying to prevent war."
In the exchange, Ramaswamy was a proxy for Trump, who wants to force Ukraine into a “deal” with Russia that would reward Putin for his unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation.
Haley, on the other hand, represented the McConnell side of the argument, insisting that abandoning Ukraine would only embolden Putin, which would ultimately come back to haunt the U.S.
But on this, as with many other issues, Republican voters have deserted the old guard and McConnell to follow Trump’s parade of blissful ignorance. The severance continues to be a long, slow education for McConnell.
Trump’s continuing legal problems, the car crash of a Republican debate, and the polling numbers defy the traditional media’s narrative that the Republican Party is even above water with voters.