This was surprising. But should it have been?
Superficially it’s surprising to find any prominent Republican praising Biden, particularly one who’s a regular on Fox News. Substantively it feels surprising watching a MAGA-aligned pol like Newt cheering on hawkishness by a Democrat at this stage of the GOP’s (d)evolution. Populism increasingly dominates the party and populism favors a more modest foreign policy abroad, never more so than when the United States is at odds with one of those “strong” authoritarian countries whom so many populists seem to admire. You would think that might incline Gingrich to rap Biden on the knuckles for vowing this morning to ride to Taiwan’s defense. It’s “America First,” not “Taiwan First,” right?
That’s what the anti-anti-Putin righties keep saying about Ukraine. Why should we spend money on Taiwan instead of on baby formula?
On the other hand, China shares blame for the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base and the resulting social afflictions that have plagued blue-collar Americans over the past 40 years. We owe the Chinese for that, populists might say. So the case for war with China is stronger than the case for supporting a distant ally in a war with Russia. Especially after their failed cover-up of the outbreak in Wuhan ended up killing a million Americans.
So the politics Newt has to navigate with Taiwan runs something like this: The GOP is still hawkish on balance, but it’s trending dovish and isolationist, but it’s okay to make a hawkish exception for China, but “America First” means we don’t send our boys to die for foreigners, but if we fight them and win maybe the Rust Belt will flourish anew, but Biden is wrong about everything and therefore we should be on the opposite side.
It’s turbulent. Old-school hawks are worried about that turbulence. Despite his efforts to remake himself as a modern Trump Republican, maybe Gingrich remains enough of an old-school hawk himself at heart that he’s willing to give Biden some cover here. If there’s no “right” MAGA answer on Taiwan, Newt might as well say what he really believes.
In a few years he might be singing a different tune, though. Axios has a scoop today about Republicans in Congress “working with a wide range of conservative groups to pull back American support for Ukraine, the Middle East and Europe, officials tell us.” A Trump restoration in 2025 will see a sharp split between the ascendant anti-NATO isolationists in Congress on the one hand and the old-guard McConnell-ite interventionists on the other. Should be zesty.
What they’re saying: “We’re going to come out on the back end of this — probably in a period of months, but certainly by 2024 — with a strong conservative and libertarian consensus about a more restrained, but still very robust, American foreign policy,” said Kevin Roberts, who late last year took over as president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Objections to the Ukraine bill fell into three categories: strategic differences over America’s policy role in world affairs, procedural objections to the bill’s speedy passage through Congress and concerns the money could be better put to use domestically.
“Every Congressman had their own public reason for voting no, but I don’t think you would have seen this expanded coalition if it wasn’t for a genuine reassessment of American foreign policy happening in the Republican conference,” one operative involved in the effort told Axios.
Given that 90 percent of Republican politics nowadays is defined by negative partisanship towards the Democrats, Biden pledging to defend Taiwan should only accelerate the right’s isolationist transition. Which, again, is why I find Newt’s take here surprising. He got onboard with Trump once he realized that’s the way the base was moving. Why not hop aboard the new anti-war Republican train early too?
He’s right about Biden’s staff embarrassing him with their walkbacks this morning, though. Good lord:
2/ This would also be consistent with US support for Ukraine, that is, weapons not boots on the ground. Though there are both Ds and Rs who are pushing for more ambiguity than clarity to, in effect, keep both Moscow and Beijing guessing.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) May 23, 2022
In lieu of an exit question, read this thoughtful Politico piece about the similarities and differences between Ukraine and Taiwan. The U.S. is nudging the Taiwanese to follow the Ukrainians’ lead by pivoting away from heavy military hardware and towards Stingers and Javelins, a more nimble weapon better suited to asymmetric warfare waged by an overmatched force. But Taiwan isn’t as culturally suited as Ukraine was to handle an invasion. The Ukrainian population had eight years of war in the east to gain some combat experience; in Taiwan, by contrast, the regular military doesn’t interact much with the reserve force, which barely receives any training. They’re simply not ready for the sort of mass mobilization that Ukraine has managed so effectively. Because China is an economic powerhouse, Taiwan shouldn’t expect as much international support as Ukraine has received either. And because the population disparity between China and Taiwan is so enormous, Beijing won’t run out of troops the way Russia has if it attempts a full-scale invasion. Rough sledding ahead.