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Smart Politics, for Once

The House GOP’s Ukraine gambit is surprisingly shrewd.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson in the U.S. Capitol on December 6, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

After much sturm und drang inside the conference, a House Republican known for sucking up to Donald Trump is elected speaker. He quickly discovers that his new job is impossible: The populist and conservative factions among his members can’t get together to pass major legislation or, sometimes, even on basic procedural business. His members grow disillusioned with his leadership. He tries to soothe them with shiny objects, like pursuing an impeachment inquiry against the president and releasing footage of the January 6 riot, but it doesn’t work. Some of his colleagues begin referring to him as a “joke.” Rumblings of a motion to strip him of the gavel are heard.

“Yeah, we know the Kevin McCarthy story,” you might say upon reading that. I wasn’t describing McCarthy, though. I was describing Mike Johnson.

Johnson distinguished himself by his suck-uppery toward the coup-plotter-in-chief after the 2020 election. It took weeks of infighting inside the Republican conference in October before he emerged as a consensus choice for speaker. He’s already stumbled on advancing legislation, to his embarrassment, and has lately taken to pandering on impeachment and the insurrection to discourage his troops from a mutiny.

And in important ways, he very much is a “joke.”

Johnson’s spokesman later “clarified” that it’s not the Justice Department whom he fears will retaliate against rioters seen in the footage; it’s vigilantes. (The DOJ already has the unedited video, of course.) But the speaker’s gaffe is revealing, and true to form for his party. The whole point of this year’s Republican presidential primary, it seems, is to make sure that federal law enforcement can’t hold insurrectionists accountable for their crimes.

You’re within your rights to assume that the latest “joke” to lead the ungovernable House Republican conference will prove hapless in the role. In a party that no longer much cares about policy, whose few remaining serious members in Congress are rushing for the exit, how could he plausibly succeed?

I’m as surprised as you are, then, to find myself saying that Johnson’s ploy linking new funding for Ukraine to border-security reforms is … pretty smart politics. 

Maybe even brilliant?

Hostage-taking hasn’t worked out great for Republicans.

Legislative hostage-taking, I mean. Electoral hostage-taking has worked out fabulously for the MAGA base as a tactic to gain control of the GOP. Because populists are willing to stay home in the general election if they don’t get their way in a primary and dumb hyperpartisan conservatives aren’t, populists have expanded their power inside the party immensely.

Hostage-taking can succeed when practiced against a cohort as selfish and gutless as the Republican leadership class. But the Democratic leadership class has been less willing to surrender to right-wing hostage tactics, possibly because they’re made of sterner stuff but probably because the stakes are so high in legislative standoffs that even MAGA types are afraid to shoot the hostage.

For instance, despite many threats to use the debt ceiling as leverage for major spending reform, the Tea Party revolution of the last decade led neither to a breakthrough on entitlements nor to a default. Splashy Republican efforts to shut down the government in the name of extracting concessions on key priorities fizzled out with little to show after a few weeks in 2013 and again in 2018. The GOP’s appetite for brinksmanship at this point is sufficiently weak that even Kevin McCarthy—Kevin McCarthy!—was able to resolve the latest debt-ceiling showdown earlier this year without much muss or fuss.

It’s so weak that when Mike Johnson took the gavel in October, his long reluctance to fund Ukraine’s war effort seemed to melt away instantly. “We can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” Johnson told Sean Hannity in his first interview as speaker. I feared at the time that he’d resist appropriating money for the war, perhaps blocking it entirely to appease America-First-ers. Instead he sounded ready to write a check with no conditions.

He is ready to write that check—but there are conditions. And for once, the conditions in this new legislative hostage crisis work strongly in Republicans’ favor, I think.

My colleagues at The Morning Dispatch described the terms of Johnson’s offer in Wednesday’s edition. House Republicans are willing to approve desperately needed supplemental funding for Ukraine but only in exchange for “transformative change to our nation’s border security laws,” as the speaker put it. By “transformative change” he means H.R. 2, the Republican immigration wishlist bill that passed earlier this year. That bill is a nonstarter in a Democratic Senate, needless to say, but the concept of bundling Ukrainian border security with American border security has gained traction with Senate Republicans.

So much so, in fact, that the normally hawkish cohort in that conference sounds willing to join Johnson in roadblocking Ukraine funding unless Democrats give them something on border enforcement. What that “something” might be is a matter of negotiation—or was a matter of negotiation, I should say—but at a minimum Republicans want to require asylum-seekers traveling to the U.S. via other countries to apply for asylum in those other countries first and to limit the White House’s ability to use humanitarian “parole” authority to release migrants into the country temporarily.

This is normally the point where staunch Reaganites like Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham would clear their throats and scold the MAGA bloc for providing aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin by placing conditions on aid to Ukraine. Victory is too important to be waylaid by domestic policy haggling! Not this time, though. “Eventually, you’ve got to have the border fight. I’m not going to support any of this stuff until I know what’s going to happen with our own border,” Graham said last month of new military aid. Romney was even more emphatic, warning Democrats that until they’re prepared to end the practice of releasing thousands of migrants per day into the United States, no Ukraine deal will be done.

Thanks in part to Mike Johnson, the notoriously fractious and ungovernable Republican congressional conference is—dare I say it?—united. The MAGA bloc gets border enforcement; the hawks get Ukraine support. Everyone’s happy.

And no wonder. They find themselves suddenly, and unusually, in a position where the public is likely to land firmly on their side in a standoff with Democrats.

The problem with the GOP’s previous legislative hostage-taking is that it was always threatening to punish not just the other party but the American people if they didn’t get their way.

Government shutdowns mean (some) federal employees don’t get paid and (some) federal services don’t get provided. A debt ceiling default would mean a global economic catastrophe in a worst-case scenario, incinerating Americans’ wealth. Neither of those things are popular, for obvious reasons. You’re not going to win a hostage crisis in a democracy when the electorate itself is destined to be caught in the crossfire if things go sideways.

What’s novel about the current “border security for Ukraine money” crisis is that, for once, it’s not American voters who risk being victimized. It’s Ukrainians, and Americans are considerably less concerned about the welfare of Ukrainians than they’ve been since the start of the war. A Gallup poll last month found 61 percent now believe there should be a limit on U.S. financial support for Ukraine’s defense. When asked if they prefer a quick end to the conflict that involves concessions to Russia or a prolonged one aimed at regaining territory, 55 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of independents chose the former.

The trend in that sentiment seems likely to worsen. Ukraine’s counteroffensive has stalled as winter sets in while infighting between Volodymyr Zelensky, his top general, and his political rivals has picked up. Without additional aid, Ukrainian forces might not advance further; if Ukrainian forces don’t advance further, there might not be a political appetite for additional aid. You see the problem.

Shutting down the U.S. government would be unpopular, but shutting down the Ukrainian military at this stage of the war is less unpopular among Americans than it should be. Arguably, then, it’s Republicans more so than Democrats who represent public opinion on this issue.

It’s less arguable that they also reflect public opinion on immigration at the moment better than Democrats do. An NBC News poll published in September found Republicans leading on the issue by 18 points and by fully 30 points on the narrower subject of “border security,” an all-time high in the history of that survey. Internal Democratic polling also finds an electoral calamity in the making on the issue, with Trump leading by 22 points when voters are asked whether he and the GOP would do a better job on border security than Biden and his party.

Of six major issues tracked by the RealClearPolitics average—the economy, foreign policy, crime, inflation, and Ukraine being the other five—Biden’s single worst job approval rating is on immigration, where it stands today at 34 percent. There’s no reason for now to think that trend will get better rather than worse either:

Chaos on the border isn’t just a humanitarian disaster, it’s a political one that a nationalist demagogue like Trump is well positioned to exploit next year. And it’s a potent wedge issue at a fraught moment for Biden. The sensible thing to do at this moment would be to let Republicans twist his arm into supporting stricter border policies, as that would help him neutralize the issue with swing voters ahead of the coming campaign. But there’s a problem, per political scientist Ryan Enos:

Faced with the reality of surging immigration across the southern border, Biden has largely failed to liberalize his administration’s approach to immigration—in fact, he has left much of the Trump era policies in place. To many young voters, who were first attracted to Biden’s social progressivism, such moves may feel like a betrayal. Additionally, Biden has seemed to greenlight Israel’s campaign of violence against civilians in Gaza. Especially for young voters of color, this seems like a betrayal and could cost Biden crucial states such as Michigan.

The president’s difficulties with young voters are real and growing thanks to the politics of Israel’s war with Hamas. The last thing he needs now is to be caught between a majority that wants stronger immigration enforcement and a young progressive cohort that thinks it’s already too strong as is. In a better world, he could ignore the open-borders radicals in his party and make a play for the middle. In the world we actually live in, he won the presidency by less than 50,000 votes across key swing states. The more disaffected the young left becomes, the greater Biden’s task will be in trying to replace their otherwise reliable Democratic votes with less reliably Democratic centrists.

All in all, Republicans look to be on the popular side of both ends of the “border security for Ukraine money” standoff, a pretty sweet place to be in a democracy and one destined to make their demands in this crisis seem inherently reasonable to many voters. That will complicate the political calculus on “hostage-taking” considerably relative to what Democrats are used to. After all, is it the GOP that’s taking a hostage by refusing to approve Ukraine funding until the border is tightened—or is it Democrats who are taking a hostage by refusing to consider tightening the border unless funding for Ukraine is approved?

Why would an American political party ever need concessions to carry out a duty as basic as immigration enforcement? It’s like demanding a federal minimum wage—and refusing to fund the military until you get one. Even the normally centrist Romney sounded like an America-First-er in framing the current standoff for reporters: “For [Democrats], keeping an open border is more important than the security of Europe or the Middle East. Which is astonishing to me.”

Chuck Schumer and his caucus can grumble all they like about Republicans placing conditions unrelated to the war on Ukraine aid, but to many voters it won’t be a stretch conceptually that Congress might insist on making sure America’s borders are defended before Ukraine’s are. Perhaps they wouldn’t be grumbling about it if Biden weren’t so weak politically: It must have occurred to Senate Democrats that seizing this opportunity to go big on addressing a crisis that’s killing them politically might improve their chances next fall.

But Biden is weak and can’t alienate the left further by cracking down. He and Schumer are stuck. And congressional Republicans, uncharacteristically, are shrewdly capitalizing.

“We need to fix the broken border system. It is broken.”

Those aren’t the words of Mike Johnson or Mitt Romney. They were spoken on Wednesday morning by Joe Biden, who stressed that he’s willing to make “significant compromises” on the border. “Significant” doesn’t mean carte blanche for Republicans, of course …

… but, for once, this hostage crisis is likely to end with a sizable ransom being paid, however unhappy that might make progressives. (As Romney has pointed out repeatedly, it was actually Biden who first proposed adding funding for border security to the current supplemental bill.) And maybe they’ll be less unhappy than we suppose. As much as tightening asylum rules may infuriate them, they can read a poll. Most of them don’t want Trump to be president again. They understand the magnitude of the threat here, one would hope, and what impact stuff like this will have on voters during the campaign:

I wonder too if this crisis will end with Johnson emerging as the most powerful Republican in Congress.

Probably not. How powerful can a leader be presiding over a conference that remains essentially ungovernable? Even a big win on immigration in Ukraine negotiations could (and likely soon will) be eclipsed by a new fiasco next month in trying to keep the government funded.

But it’s striking to me that Johnson, more so than the diminished Mitch McConnell, has been out front in this matter. That’s not just by dint of the fact that one leads a majority and the other a minority: McConnell initially wanted to package funding for Ukraine with aid to Israel in hopes of putting the squeeze on Ukraine doves in Congress—but Senate Republicans refused, handing him a rare defeat internally. Lately he’s toed the line on pairing border security with Ukraine funding, but it’s hard to believe that a hawk as devoted to containing Russia as McConnell has been throughout his career truly wants to risk letting military aid lapse for the sake of tweaks to immigration.

His time is passing. The era of Johnson, perhaps, or a series of figures much like him is beginning. Strategically, that’s all but guaranteed to be a step down. But this episode has been auspicious thus far.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.