Mike Pence and The Fight Over GOP Foreign Policy

Column: Support for Ukraine Is a winning issue

(Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS)
July 7, 2023

On June 29, Mike Pence became the first Republican presidential candidate to visit Ukraine. The former vice president traveled to Kyiv with Franklin Graham, who heads the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse. Pence and Graham toured sites of Russian atrocities. They listened to Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. They met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

When he returned home, Pence explained why assistance to Ukraine is essential to American security. "We’re there because it’s in our national interest to give the Ukrainian military the ability to rebut and defeat Russian aggression," Pence told Jonathan Karl of ABC News. "Because if Russia overran Ukraine, I have no doubt, John, that it wouldn’t be too long before they crossed a border where American servicemen and women would be required to go and fight."

Pence said that President Biden has failed to make a compelling case for American leadership. Biden rarely discusses Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He would rather devote his limited energy to domestic policy. On the few occasions when he does address the conflict, Biden says that Ukraine is part of a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism. This abstract framework, Pence said, is too closely related to Biden’s partisan agenda to attract support from Republicans and independents.

Nor does Biden’s grand rhetoric match his overly cautious actions. Biden continually delays sending Ukraine the platforms required to defeat the Russian invaders, needlessly extending the war and undermining Western resolve. And Biden rejects the defense buildup necessary to replenish U.S. weapons stocks, bolster allies, and deter further aggression. "The Biden administration has been cutting back on our defense spending at a time that the world is becoming more dangerous by the day," Pence told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday.

Pence says that Biden’s lassitude on Ukraine is connected to his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, his foolish pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, and his recent turn toward dovishness on China. Pence offers a full-spectrum critique of Biden’s progressive foreign policy that one rarely hears from the other GOP presidential candidates, who tend to harp on one or two discrete issues when they mention international affairs at all. Pence’s trip not only demonstrated his commitment to advancing freedom abroad. It revealed his intention to resist those in his own party who are prepared to abandon Ukraine and the West.

Pence is not alone in this fight. Republican views on Ukraine are more complicated than a casual observer of conservative media might assume. For example, a late spring poll conducted by Beacon Research and Shaw & Company Research on behalf of the Ronald Reagan Institute found that GOP voters back increased defense and security spending and American leadership and engagement in the world. A 71-percent majority of Republicans said that Ukrainian victory is important to the United States. Fifty percent of Republicans support further military aid to Ukraine.

The Reagan Institute survey suggests that GOP support for aid to Ukraine will rise if figures such as Pence continue to inform voters of the war’s stakes. For instance, after pollsters explained that U.S. aid to Ukraine is a small percentage of the Pentagon’s budget, that Ukraine controls most of its territory, and that the war has seriously degraded the Russian military, the percentage of Republicans who said that U.S. assistance has been worth it jumped by 18 points, to 59 percent.

The data imply that, in the absence of energetic and effective leadership, negative partisanship determines voter attitudes. Republicans soured on aid to Ukraine not because they side with Russia, but because they consider the war to be another wasteful Biden project. When Republicans learn the facts behind U.S. involvement, however, their instinctual hawkishness kicks in. What they have lacked is a prominent GOP spokesman for freedom.

Mike Pence has stepped into the breach. Of course, at this stage, Republican support for Ukraine is considerably stronger than Republican support for Pence’s campaign. He trails both former president Donald Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis in national and state polls—distantly.

Nonetheless, Pence’s decision to highlight his support for Ukraine is not only courageous, but also savvy. It draws a contrast with DeSantis, who hasn’t found his footing on the issue, as well as with Trump, who says that he will end the war in 24 hours, with details to be worked out later. Aid to Ukraine, moreover, is the one place where Republican voters disagree with the former president. It’s a wedge issue in a GOP primary that, unlike criminal indictments, separates Trump from many in his party.

Foreign policy can pop up in unusual ways in presidential elections. Pence must recall how John McCain rode the success of the surge in Iraq to a late-breaking win in the 2008 Republican contest. Pence might benefit from a similar vindication this fall if the Ukrainian counteroffensive bears fruit and Russian lines collapse.

Even if Pence loses the GOP nomination, he may galvanize enough Republican voters to dissuade Trump from appeasing Putin. His stand for American strength and leadership in defense of democracy sustains a noble tradition of conservative internationalism. "I’m a guy who believes in that old Reagan Doctrine," Pence told Hugh Hewitt. "If you’re willing to fight the enemies of the United States on your soil, we’ll give you the means to fight them there so our men and women in uniform don’t have to fight them."

Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression has proven that there’s nothing old about the Reagan Doctrine. It’s as necessary today as it was 40 years ago. Reminding voters of this fact, and of America’s role as a beacon of hope for those without freedom, is Mike Pence’s mission. And most Americans—and Republicans—share his cause.