Do Republicans really not care about Ukraine?
While there is a shift happening within the G.O.P., it is far from unanimous.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made news this week when responding to questions about his position on the war in Ukraine, indicating:
“while the US has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
In this, DeSantis is positioning himself quite differently than, say, Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who offered an opposing view of the conflict:
“America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, including avoiding a wider war…If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine. And if Russia wins, then its closest allies, China and Iran, will become more aggressive.”
This is not a new development. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake was on the case a month ago, outlining the different approaches of the two candidates.
But what is still developing is the slowly increasing view among Republicans that perhaps the war in Ukraine, while a tragedy, is not vital to American interests. And there’s polling looking at the same sort of framing Gov. DeSantis used - “vital U.S. interests” - going back to the very start of the war.
On the one hand, a 15-point increase in the percent of Republicans saying they lean more toward the view that “vital U.S. interests” is a sizable shift over the course of a year. On the other hand, it is not the unanimous (or even majority) view of Republicans; four-in-ten do think Ukraine’s war is our war, and another 12 percent are undecided.
Additionally, when you take party out of the equation and you look at which voter groups tend to be more supportive of the view that U.S. interests aren’t really at stake, it isn’t exactly the demographic groups you think of as “MAGA Republican”. Behold, the crosstabs:
Men, white voters, seniors…they are the ones most likely to say, you know what, Ukraine’s war is our war. (Caveat: In our January survey crosstabs, gender and race divides were more muted.)
The notion that this is just a view held by viewers of Fox News primetime misses that there are many Americans who have probably never watched a minute of conservative cable news in their lives who nevertheless haven’t been persuaded by our leaders that “Ukraine’s war is our war.”
My entrypoint into “center-right” thought came about in high school, upon learning about the Cold War and the depravity of Communism. I have joked that I’m the only person who came away from reading The Handmaid’s Tale in English class wondering why the rest of the world did not take up arms to liberate the oppressed women of Gilead. (I’m not sure Margaret Atwood intended her novel would have that effect on teenage girls forming their politics.) I often give copies of Vaclav Havel’s Summer Meditations to students I have the chance to mentor, and his noble fight against socialism and authoritarianism remain inspirational to me.
Republicans speak of Ronald Reagan with deep reverence. Nearly 9-in-10 approve of the job he did as President, making him the top rated past president in the eyes of GOP voters. Fighting Soviets ought to be in our party’s DNA, and it has been clear for years that Vladimir Putin would very much like to revive the Soviet Union in some fashion.
I am an Old Millennial. I don’t particularly remember the Cold War; its influence on my thinking came about as a student. It had such an effect on me that, at one point, I (unsuccessfully) studied Russian in hopes of being a Cold War historian.
But what I do remember seeing in my lifetime were September 11th, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while I still think that an assertive American foreign policy is valuable, if you are my age - or certainly those who are younger - there are fewer clear examples of American expression of power as a positive influence in the world.
I wrote about this for the Reagan Institute in an essay four years ago:
These views did not come from out of the blue, and they are not just the product of liberal professors on college campuses. Young Americans’ adult lives have seen a host of foreign policy failures, and their generation has borne much of the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the experience of their lifetimes, it is not surprising that they look skeptically at claims that American strength can be a force for good.
This is not just about young progressives engaged in anti-war protest, the echo of the Howard Dean-iacs. The divide over the correct approach to foreign policy pervades the American right, and the biggest dividing line is generational.
This isn’t just about views on Ukraine. In fact Ukraine may be one of the areas where there’s the least generational divide on the Right. It is about a general shift in young voter views away from supporting an assertive (or muscular, choose your preferred adjective) foreign policy in general.
A few weeks ago, I chatted with a few friends who work on foreign policy and defense issues, trying to craft a handful of questions that would be valuable at gauging what percent of Americans support such a worldview. We wanted a blend of questions and settled on five:
“If the United States Congress passed a budget that reduced government spending and did so primarily by cutting back on defense spending, would that be a good or bad thing for the country?”
“If Russia were to win the war with Ukraine and take over large parts of its territory, would that be a problem for the United States or not?”
“If China were to surpass the United States as the most powerful and influential nation in the world, do you think it would make you better off, worse off, or not really have an effect?”
“If China were to invade Taiwan this year, do you think it would or would not be in the United States’ interest to help defend Taiwan?”
“In general, do you think it was the right decision or wrong decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan?”
When you look at the distribution of responses across the questions, there are clear partisan divides on most, as well as clear generational divides. What interests me most is the generational divide within the right.
Around half of all Republicans are on board with four or five of these statements. But that plummets to only 21 percent for Republicans under age 50. Granted, some of this maybe coming from higher “unsure” responses among younger respondents, a typical thing you find in any survey on nearly any topic. But looking within the numbers, you seen an unmistakable shift away from more assertive foreign policy views among the younger generation of Republicans.
Take China, for example. I’ve found in this survey and others that younger voters in general are less alarmed about the prospect of the United States no longer being the most powerful nation on earth. While a majority of younger Republicans do think they would be worse off if China surpassed us, it pales in comparison to the 82 percent of older Republicans who concur.
And in fact, it is younger Republicans who are the most likely to say that the defense of Taiwan would not be in our interest - even more so than younger Democrats.
On defense spending, older Republicans say absolutely not to cutting the Pentagon’s budget as a way to reduce spending. But younger Republicans? They’re open to it, and frankly look more like older Democrats than their own Republican parents and grandparents on the issue.
But what about Ukraine? Is it younger Republicans who are driving the shift away from viewing “Ukraine’s war is our war” that we saw in that trendline at the very beginning of this newsletter.
Not quite. In fact, the generational difference is relatively muted. While 52 percent of Republicans under age 50 believe “vital U.S. interests and values are not really at stake”, it is also 48 percent of Republicans aged 50+. At the same time, majorities of Republicans young and old do believe that it “would be a problem” if Russia were to win the war in Ukraine and seize large amounts of territory.
There is a generational shift underway in the Republican Party on approach to foreign policy issues. In the 2024 primary, there are a number of candidates trying to position themselves as representative of a new generation of Republican (in unspoken contrast to our 76-year-old former President). But interestingly, the Ukraine question may be the one that, for now, has less of a generational split than the many other questions about America’s role in the world.
What does this mean for 2024 then?
In our survey, we asked a number of questions not just about foreign policy but about domestic politics. At the moment, the 2024 presidential race on the Republican side has three major forces - Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and “The Field”, the remaining candidates who notch single digits for now and are getting their efforts off the ground. We ask a standard primary question, but we also have begun asking a “Donald Trump vs. Ron DeSantis” head to head.
The difference between Trump and DeSantis voters in that hypothetical head-to-head is interesting when crossed with their take on Ukraine.
Donald Trump’s coalition, by a 20-point margin, views the conflict as not really pertaining to U.S. vital interest. But DeSantis’ prospective voters? They split down the middle.
Younger generations, in both parties, are trending away from a more muscular U.S. foreign policy worldview. And the Republican Party as a whole is less and less sure that the conflict in Ukraine affects American interest. But this view is far from unanimous, and there may actually still be space to rally older Republicans - a potent force in a G.O.P primary - behind a more traditional fight-the-Soviets Republican foreign policy after all.
**Correction: the chart displaying what percentage of Republicans under and over 50 who agree with a certain number of “assertive foreign policy positions” initially contained a data point that was incorrect, showing 20% of Republicans under 50 agreeing with 2 of 5 positions. The actual figure is 26% and the graph has been updated.