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The House Ukraine package is a defeat for populists

Speaker Mike Johnson's grandstanding achieved almost nothing. Credit: Getty

April 21, 2024 - 11:15am

With a price tag of almost $100 billion, a package of military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and other American allies has just passed the United States House of Representatives. The triumph of this bill exemplifies how a politics of burn-it-all-down outrage actually blocks populist policies.

Many “based” Republicans on the Hill have inveighed against funding for Ukraine and insisted on the need to stop the border crisis. Instead, the Republican-controlled House has now passed a bill that realises the principal foreign policy aims of the Biden administration — and populists got nothing on immigration.

Rather than blaming House Speaker Mike Johnson, populist Republicans might instead look to a splinter faction of the GOP that insisted on squandering legislative leverage. Because of the centrality of Ukraine for the Biden White House’s foreign policy, Democrats might well have eventually accepted a legislative package that paired border control measures with Ukraine-Israel funding. Republicans could have passed a broader national security grand bargain in the House and then dared the Democratic-controlled Senate not to act. The precedent would have been the 2023 debt-ceiling standoff, in which House Republicans passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling and forced the White House and Senate Democrats to the negotiating table.

Instead, recalcitrant populists in the House performed judo against themselves. Rather than leveraging the border to get Ukraine funding, they used performative opposition to Ukraine funding to block action on the border. Speaker Johnson put the matter bluntly the other day: “If I put Ukraine in any package, it can’t also be with the border because I lose Republican votes on that rule.”

That is, enough Republican holdouts had pledged to oppose Ukraine funding no matter what. So the only way for Johnson to advance a piece of foreign aid legislation was to turn to House Democrats, who would refuse to support any border-control measures. Thus, border security could not be part of a foreign aid package.

And no-compromise holdouts sacrificed another point of leverage when a vote came for a separate border security bill on Saturday. GOP holdouts on the Rules Committee refused to back a rule for the border bill, and Democrats on the committee did not budge to help Republicans pass their immigration priority. As a result, the border bill couldn’t make it through and had to be brought to the floor under suspension of the rules — which meant that it required a two-thirds majority to pass. The bill ended up garnering 215 votes (to 199 opposed), so it would have passed if the Rules Committee had approved it. Thus, a splinter of the GOP on the Rules Committee ensured the death of a border security bill before it even hit the House as a whole.

This is a big failure. And perhaps that’s the point. For some populists, this complete sacrifice of legislative leverage may be a policy disappointment but a messaging opportunity. Perhaps the most prized ornament among many Republicans on Capitol Hill is a badge of angry defeat — won during the shutdowns and failed “Obamacare” repeals of the past. This debacle is another chance to rage against the “uniparty”, fret about the betrayal by the Republican “establishment”, and sneer at “America Last” foreign policy.

Yet there’s something hollow about this rage. While some of the most Trumpy Republicans on the Hill accuse Johnson of violating “America First” principles, Trump himself did not lobby against this bill in any public forum. In the lead-up to the vote, Trump complained that Europe should pay more but also said that Ukraine’s defence was “important to us.” If there’s one thing Trump’s known for, it’s letting the world know when he’s unhappy, so his silence on Johnson’s funding gambit may be revealing. Both Trump’s critics and supposed emissaries might have a vision of “Trumpism” that differs from the realities of Donald Trump as a political actor.

In any case, the debacle on the border casts a bright light on the disparity between an outrage politics optimised for social media clicks and the discipline required for a real pro-worker agenda.


Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.

fredbauerblog

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Saul D
Saul D
27 days ago

The popular-right just lost on the FISA bill, Ukraine funding, Mayorkas impeachment, the trillion dollar budget package and still has no border bill or funding. The grand claims of Biden impeachment investigation and the over-reach committee aren’t going anywhere.
The Republicans are also losing house members and may end up giving up the House majority before November just on walk-aways (which would give the Democrats the opportunity to remove Trump from the 2024 election for ‘insurrection’).
At an institutional level, Trumpist Republicans are being defeated on all sides – their lawyers are being disbarred, judges rejecting their court cases, with changes like the FISA bill and rules on career officials that also limit effective oversight of the behaviour of the inter-agencies who, apparently, can freely defy congress demands for documents and, it appears, face no consequences if they lie to or block Congress while Trump advisors get jailed.
Every lever of government power has been, and is being, used against Trump, and all bars that protect individuals from the misuse of that power are being removed. All supported by people who supposedly see themselves as classic liberal Democrats who, in past lives, would have said they were pro-civil rights, pro-freedom of speech, and pro-separation of powers and anti-government overreach.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
27 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

That’s all very true, and the game is stacked in favour of the embedded progressive establishment. But at some point populists have to decide if their politics are entirely performative, or whether they are willing to accept the trade-offs that might deliver at least some wins. Wallowing in self-righteousness at the unfairness of it all may impress the base, and may be lucrative for some wannabe celebrities. But it achieves nothing else, and leave us all weaker than before.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
26 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Wallowing has ceased to impress this member of the base.

j watson
j watson
27 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

Last para is very ‘woe is me’. 101 Republicans voted for the military aid package – almost half. It wasn’t even close. Essentially in Congress a small cabal have been holding the rest to ransom.
There is also a recurring theme internationally for the Populist Far Right (or perhaps Further Right would be less emotive and more correct) – they’re utterly rubbish beyond the slogans.

Saul D
Saul D
27 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The ‘woe is me’ is that Democrats used to have principles.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  Saul D

Very good points.
I’m disappointed too to see the failure of the Republican strategy on abortion. In particular, the Republican leaders in the Arizona legislature refuse to repeal the total ban on abortion that was passed during the Civil War, a full 160 years ago, when Arizona was still just a territory. Arizona has a reasonable abortion law already on the books, passed just two years ago. The Republicans should repeal the old law immediately.
Their recalcitrance lets the Democrats make big bales of hay out of the abortion issue. The Arizona governor and attorney general (both Democrats) refuse to enforce the old law, so it may as well not be on the books. Voters are not going to stand for the complete ban, and it will be on the ballot in Arizona either directly or indirectly this November. Even Republican Senate candidate Kari Lake knows that this issue could lead to her loss, but her voice is being ignored.
Smarten up, Republicans. Use your heads, not your hearts. The Democrats will walk all over you if you let them, and you are letting them.

Martin M
Martin M
25 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

The Republicans would do well to come to terms with the fact that Americans generally are in favour of access to abortion, and that is generally the case in Red States as well as Blue States.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
27 days ago

’A defeat for the populists’, does that mean the majority? Or a defeat for those who disagree? The term populist is usually used to denigrate those who disagree with a particular political position.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
26 days ago

Nomenclature is hardly the main point here! What’s wrong exactly anyway with the term “populist”? The point is that the pillocks you might happen to agree with, are nonetheless total political losers in any practical respect!

Your favourite point: “politics is unfair”. Well, so is life. Tell us something we don’t know!

Like some on the Left, the increasing suspicion is that many on the Right don’t actually WANT to achieve political victories, perhaps because they then might have to take responsibility for something.

John Murray
John Murray
27 days ago

The “populist right” reminds me of PJ O’Rourke’s line, to the effect of, “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
27 days ago

Excellent! Those populists aren’t that popular, they represent about 8% of the American public. Most Americans either A) do not give a shit or B) don’t want Russia to get a 2nd bite at the apple in a new Cold War, especially if it means Moscow gets a new slave nation.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
27 days ago

I’m confused here. Is this the same border bill proposed by Biden a couple months ago, or is this something new?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The bill voted on on April 20 was a rehash of the immigration bills the Republicans brought to the floor last year. Yesterday’s bill was not the bipartisan Emergency National Security Supplemental Appropriations Act that the Senate cooked and served up in February, which was sent back to the kitchen unconsumed.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
27 days ago

Most of the money goes straight back to the US MIC, no doubt with a substantial amount being paid to various helpful individuals and organisations along the way.
The people who won’t benefit are the ordinary Ukrainian, and indeed US, people.
In any event, the USA just prints the stuff; but those who get it will buy real assets which will only increase in real value.

R Wright
R Wright
27 days ago

It’s embarrassing that a country that is almost thirty five trillion dollars in debt has money to s***k up the wall on foreign policy adventurism and not on protecting its own national borders. I would expect nothing less from the failing American political elite.

0 01
0 01
27 days ago

The problem with the MAGA movement leaders is that they have something of a understanding of what troubles America, but don’t really have much of any ideas how to fix the problems. They criticize how things are done, but don’t really offer real solutions to those problems. What’s worse is that don’t seem really all that interested in solving problems, they see the movement more as means of clout chasing, settling personal scores and acting out on personal resentment as well as indulging in their own pet obsessions then doing anything productive. When we look at the movement so-called leaders, they do not come as very intelligent, knowledgeable or capable and are quite unimpressive as people. They are just gadflies try to look like statesman on Social media and doing very bad job at it. MTG comes of a insecure crank with chip on her shoulder with something to prove, Boebert is as a hypocritical, flaky drama queen who lacks good judgment and self awareness, Gaetz is a sleazy, hedonistic failson who got everything from his daddy and desperately want to be taken seriously but tries to hard and lacks the temperament to be so. Trump is a shallow, self-absorbed and impulsive social climber who had a lot of potential to achieve things out of all of them do to charisma and cultural instinct, but his extreme character flaws prevented that from happening. Its no surprise they are like this because politics attracts low quality people who lack character and suffer from personality disorders and personal demons.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
27 days ago
Reply to  0 01

Character aside, Donald Trump is a shrewd dealmaker (best I’ve seen) who accomplished a great deal as president. You sell him too short. It’s true that he has his faults, and they are big ones. But as management expert Peter Drucker pointed out, strong leaders have strong weaknesses. There is always some bad with the good, and you have to nurture the good and try to mute the bad.
I’m glad we don’t have a Ron DeSantis or a Nikki Haley as the Republican candidate. They are too ideological, and we need a pragmatist. Neither one of them has been a success in the real world, outside of politics. That’s a strong weakness, and their strengths don’t overcome it.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Trump actually managed to strongly contribute to the loss of 3 out of 4 electoral campaigns where he was a major issue. Sorry, that’s hardly FDR territory (whether or not we agree with either of their broad philosophies) of political accomplishment. On the popular vote he would never have won anything.

Tim L.
Tim L.
26 days ago
Reply to  0 01

What solution has the Democrat Party put forward for addressing the invasion at the southern border – – a top concern for the American electorate? Sending more agents to usher even more unknown, unvetted migrants into parts unknown?

David McKee
David McKee
27 days ago

Living on the other side of the Atlantic, I find that the minutiae of American domestic politics bores me.

From where I sit, the essential thing is that Ukraine must win. If it loses, Putin will eventually challenge us in the Baltic states, and then we’ll have to expend our own blood and vastly more treasure to defend ourselves.

Holding Ukraine aid to ransom in Congessional horse-trading was downright irresponsible and utterly self-defeating.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
26 days ago
Reply to  David McKee

How do you define “win”? Volodymyr Zelensky says that Ukraine will not accept any victory unless it includes:
(1) Russia gives back Crimea (including Sevastopol, which has been a key Russian naval base since the 1700s) and the Donbas.
(2) Russia pays reparations (estimated to be over $1 trillion).
(3) Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders are tried for war crimes.
(4) Ukraine joins the EU and NATO.
The US has finally given Ukraine a big boost in promised war materiel. It’s far, far short of what Ukraine would need to win the victory Volodymyr Zelensky seeks.

Talia Perkins
Talia Perkins
26 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Russia has no need of Sevastopol. They both have bases further to the East and, increasingly they have no Black Sea Fleet.
Russia will pay for it’s criminal war, yes.
Unlikely that any but a few will end up in the dock, and Zelenskyy knows that.
Ukraine should join the EU and NATO, tha tputs an end to Russia’s criminal stupidity.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Talia Perkins

I’m not sure what use the Russian Navy has for Sevastopol anyway. It is now too scared to base it’s ships there, and the Naval Headquarters building has a couple of big holes in it.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
26 days ago

It’s a vicious circle wherein the doomed Ukraine will be controlled entirely by Russia unless this emergency aid comes. Meaning that the Russian military is ready to break through Ukrainian ranks and take Kiev successfully now; patently not the case 2 years ago.
But given the limited human resources available in the absence of NATO ground support and a no-fly zone, the Ukraine, London and Washington will find themselves in the same strategic predicament much earlier than this time next week.

Tim Little
Tim Little
26 days ago

Simple logic is not to be found in the prognostications concerning Putin’s “intentions” after Ukraine. The idea that a Russian war machine that has struggled to overcome tiny Ukraine in two years of fighting could then march through Europe is absurd from several points of view. The US State Department has long understood that Putin considered Ukraine a vital piece of Russia’s strategic calculus. Russia’s response to NATO’s welcoming attitude towards Ukraine was predictable. Western powers didn’t just ask for the Russian response – – they insisted on it.

Thomas Wagner
Thomas Wagner
26 days ago
Reply to  Tim Little

“Russia’s response to NATO’s welcoming attitude towards Ukraine was predictable.”
And has resulted in two more neutrals joining NATO. Smooth move, Putin.

Tim L.
Tim L.
26 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Wagner

One might surmise Putin is less concerned about Sweden and Finland than he would be of the Ukrainian bogey on his border.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  Tim L.

I can’t imagine why. Finland has a particularly long border with Russia.

Tim L.
Tim L.
24 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Russia brings a weapon against Finland that Finland can’t bring to bear against Russia – – an economic one. Go and read about the real costs to Finland of making itself a top-tier enemy of Putin. Cheap timber, cheap energy, tourism dollars – – Russia commands them all.
And now Finland must devote more of its GDP to all its border defense systems as the result of becoming an extension of NATO. Russia now strikes Finland without need of an expensive and overt military initiative. It has more ways of managing that front than the one in Ukraine.

Andrew F
Andrew F
26 days ago
Reply to  Tim Little

Stop inventing straw men. No one says that Putin would march through Europe.
But if successful in Ukraine (let’s define it as keeping territory he holds now), he might try in Estonia next or conquer Georgia.
Your take on NATO welcoming Ukraine is pure Russian propaganda.
No idea if you read Russian, but both Putin and his ideologues statements about Ukraine (Little Russians, not really a nation, etc) clearly shows that it had nothing to do with NATO but with another attempt to genocide Ukrainian people.
Like it happened already in 1930s.
You either do not know it or ignore it.

Tim L.
Tim L.
24 days ago
Reply to  Andrew F

You are incorrect. Many in the US and Germany, at the least, do in fact make the argument that if Putin is allowed to take Ukraine, he will continue his march westward. As to your assertion regarding a welcoming to NATO – – where have you been, and what do you read?