McConnell spikes the ball on Ukraine aid: I want to diminish the number in my caucus who support isolationism

McConnell spikes the ball on Ukraine aid: I want to diminish the number in my caucus who support isolationism

By “diminish the number,” he means persuading skeptics of sending aid to support the Ukrainians.

But if Rand Paul were to lose his reelection bid this fall in a stunning upset, I doubt McConnell would be too broken up about it. Assuming the new GOP Senate majority didn’t depend on holding Paul’s seat, of course.

“I am interested in diminishing the number of my members who believe that America somehow can exist alone in the world,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview. “I think the fact that only 11 in the end ended up voting against the package was indication of success in convincing a larger number of our members that no matter what was being said by some on the outside that those views were simply incorrect.”

McConnell has been busy all week trying to fend off Democratic attacks about the 11 Senate Republicans who voted against the Ukraine aid bill. They’re a tiny part of the caucus, Mitch keeps saying. They’re basically a rounding error. He knows that most Americans support Ukraine and doesn’t want the stink of anti-anti-Russia nationalists rubbing off on the party in the midterms. That’s why he went to Kiev for a photo op with Zelensky, who reportedly gave him a baseball cap with the words “Russian warship, go f*** yourself” on it as a souvenir. McConnell may be 80, but he’s willing to fly into a war zone to try to help his party scrub off the stain of loudmouth populists badmouthing Zelensky more often than they do Putin.

Paul and the other 10 Republicans who voted against the aid package aren’t who McConnell is primarily worried about, though. No one cares what they think. What the Trump family thinks is another matter:

Trump Sr. has also been grousing about the size of the aid package lately too. Mitch knows that will influence Republican voters; the opinion of the leader of the GOP can’t be waved away as easily as, say, Josh Hawley’s opinion can. Republican support for Ukraine has already begun to soften, in fact:

The share of Republicans and independents who believe the U.S. is doing the right amount or not enough to help the Ukrainians stands at roughly 60 percent, a solid majority despite the huge outlay in federal spending recently. But you can see the trendline among Republicans for yourself. It’s pure isolationism that’s driving it either. The more cash Biden showers on Zelensky, the more principled fiscal hawks like Philip Klein will ask the question, “What Is the Limiting Principle on Ukraine Aid?”

For now, though, McConnell is exulting in his victory over the doves — and over Trump. The Times asked about his visit to Ukraine:

Why did you decide to make the trip to Europe last weekend?

One was to try to convey to the Europeans that skepticism about NATO itself, expressed by the previous president, was not the view of Republicans in the Senate. And I also was trying to minimize the vote against the package in my own party.

We have sort of an isolationist wing, and I think some of the Trump supporters are sort of linked up with the isolationists — a lot of talk out in the primaries about this sort of thing. And I felt this would help diminish the number of votes against the package. I think that worked out well.

I think this is more than a case of McConnell wanting to assert his own leadership over the party at the expense of a political enemy who’s (momentarily) out of office. He’s a true blue hawk even if he’s not as loud about it as figures like Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. This is a guy, after all, who told the WSJ that he thinks the Ukrainians should feel free to try to push Russia completely out of their country, that he doesn’t foresee any meaningful limits on how much aid the U.S. might supply, and even that he won’t ask Ukraine to pledge not to use any missiles or artillery sent by the U.S. to stage cross-border attacks on Russian territory. McConnell became a senator during Reagan’s presidency, remember. Being anti-Russia is part of his political DNA.

He’s making the hawkish case because he believes in it sincerely and doesn’t want to see the GOP become an anti-anti-Putin party. Relatedly, I think he worries how Europe might greet a Trump restoration in 2025 and is trying to signal to them that a decisive American turn towards isolationism under Trump 2.0 is by no means assured, as powerful members of Trump’s own party are prepared to fight him on it. The world shouldn’t give up on NATO yet.

There’s a moral component to his calculus too. McConnell is viewed as a supreme Machiavellian strategist but he’s not oblivious to the power dynamic between Russia and Ukraine. “For a lot of younger people in America, this is the first time they’ve ever seen a clear battle between right and wrong,” he told the Times. “To a lot of people, Afghanistan was murky. Iraq was murky. It just didn’t seem like a clear choice. I thought both those wars were necessary, by the way, but it was confusing to people. I don’t think anybody’s confused about this.”

Here he is last night reiterating to Bret Baier that he foresees no hard limits on U.S. aid to Ukraine and that the isolationist wing of his caucus is a “tiny percentage,” which is true if you define 22 percent as “tiny.” That number will be much larger if Ukraine comes begging for more help before November. I hope he’s already preparing his talking points for the moment when he, not Paul, is in the minority of the caucus.

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