Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Opinion | Mike Pence wants to update Reagan’s foreign policy for Trump’s GOP

Opinion | Mike Pence wants to update Reagan’s foreign policy for Trump’s GOP

Washington conventional wisdom holds that former vice president Mike Pence’s chances of securing the GOP presidential nomination are slim. He is too closely associated with Donald Trump for anti-Trump Republicans and not sufficiently loyal to the former president for the MAGA crowd. But Trump’s legal troubles, as well as recent stumbles by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have opened up political space for Pence, who is now running third or fourth in most national polls.

In search of momentum, Pence is doubling down on foreign policy — and specifically Ukraine — as the centerpiece of his campaign. He traveled to Kyiv shortly after announcing his candidacy last month. He met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and spoke with religious leaders and witnesses of Russian war crimes. On the campaign trail, Pence is leaning hard on his foreign policy expertise and experience to argue that, as he told me during an interview on Monday, “this is no time for on-the-job training” when it comes to national security.

But, keenly aware of the Ukraine fatigue within his party, Pence is trying to fuse the idealism of President Ronald Reagan’s freedom agenda with a heavy dose of Trump’s “America first” focus on the United States’ national interests. Threading that needle won’t be easy.

“I think America is the leader of the free world, and I think we’re in the midst of a vigorous debate within the Republican Party whether or not we’re as a party going to shrink from that role,” he told me.

Politically, Pence’s staunch pro-Ukraine stance is not as risky as it might seem. It’s true that polls show that GOP voters are increasingly weary of U.S. aid to Ukraine. Yet when Republicans are asked if defending Ukraine is in the country’s national interest, a slim majority still say yes. That’s why Pence often refers to national interest to argue that if Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, he will attack a NATO country next, drawing U.S. troops into the fighting.

Pence also rejects the notion put forward by some conservatives that the United States should reduce support for Ukraine so that it can boost its deterrent against China.

“There’s no more effective way to restrain China’s military ambitions in the Asia-Pacific than having the United States and the free world give Ukraine what they need to repel a Russian invasion,” Pence told me.

In a nod to the concerns of Republican fiscal hawks, Pence told me he would not support extensive economic aid to the Ukrainian government as president, preferring to focus on ramping up transfers of military supplies and putting the financial burden on the Europeans. That roughly tracks with the position of GOP leadership in Congress.

Running on his Russia record is complicated for Pence, given that Trump’s deference to Putin likely made Reagan turn in his grave. Tactically, though, it allows Pence to tout the parts of Trump’s foreign policy he supported (such as sending Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine), while painting the Biden administration as weak (for not arming Ukraine enough).

Another benefit the Pence campaign can hope for by focusing on Ukraine (and foreign policy writ large) is that it highlights his competitors’ clumsiness. Both Trump and DeSantis have adjusted their Ukraine rhetoric after catching flak for statements that were overly accommodating to Putin. DeSantis called last year’s Russian invasion a “territorial dispute” before walking back his remarks; Trump called Putin a “genius” when the Kremlin launched its assault.

“It’s a Russian invasion, not a territorial dispute. Putin is a war criminal, not a genius,” Pence told me. “I’m ready for this debate.”

On Sunday, Trump elaborated on his previous claim that he could solve the Russian-Ukraine war within 24 hours of retaking office. Trump said he would threaten to stop sending weapons to Ukraine unless Zelensky struck a deal, while simultaneously coercing Putin to the table by threatening to send more arms to Ukraine.

Pence told me he thinks Trump is moving toward Pence’s view in one key respect: The former president now admits that arming Ukraine is the best way to influence Putin’s behavior.

“I think President Trump has got it half right,” Pence told me. “I think he’s coming around.”

Some conservative leaders, such former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, will likely never come around on Ukraine. At the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa last week, Carlson accused Pence of ignoring Zelensky’s supposed repression of Orthodox Christians. Pence was at least able to push back against Carlson by noting that he had met with Orthodox leaders during his trip who explained why the situation isn’t as simple as Carlson claims.

I think this is a moment where those of us who understand who we’re dealing with in Vladimir Putin and in those that have aligned themselves with him, like Xi [Jinping] and Iran, step forward and explain to the American people what’s really at stake here,” Pence told me.

Pence is right; strong leadership and an experienced commander in chief who believes in American values seem important in this world of growing chaos and uncertainly. But what remains unclear is whether today’s Republican Party is still receptive to that message — or open to Pence as its messenger.

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