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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Bernstein: Republican party factions a loss for all

By Jonathan Bernstein
Published: February 27, 2023, 6:01am

Extremist Republicans didn’t waste time bashing President Joe Biden’s surprise visit last week to Kyiv. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia called the trip “incredibly insulting,” while Florida Republican Matt Gaetz tweeted that Biden was “ditching America for Ukraine.”

But a large swath of GOP lawmakers were largely quiet about the trip, exposing once again the deep fissure within the party about how to handle Biden’s support for Ukraine, a policy that is both popular and generally thought to be successful. It is yet another sign of Republican dysfunction, and it’s guaranteed to give responsible Republicans headaches.

Normally, when a president does something voters approve of, out-party politicians either go along or just talk about something else. Indeed, sometimes out-party politicians will support the president during foreign policy crises even if it represents a policy failure by the administration; if U.S. troops or other citizens are in danger or an unpopular nation is doing something ugly, politicians are usually wary of using rhetoric that sounds as if they are siding with an enemy.

Supporting the president can hurt the out-party in the short term. “Rally around the flag” effects — in which the president’s approval ratings shoot up — happen when politicians from both parties support the president’s actions in a high-profile foreign affairs event. But the bounce generally doesn’t last long, so while it’s nice for a president to get a temporary lift, the out-party loses little from just waiting out the moment.

There are other reasons the party as a whole and individual politicians might not want to automatically criticize everything the president does. For one, the president has the biggest megaphone, so it’s hard to win the argument.

For another, if out-party politicians care about their reputations with non-partisan experts (and by extension with swing voters), they may want to be selective in their opposition. It’s possible that attacks on, say, President Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis or President George W. Bush over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were taken more seriously because many of the critics had initially rallied to those presidents in the early days of those crises.

But traditional political incentives don’t carry a lot of weight with the Republican extremist faction in Congress, whose main goal is to differentiate themselves from mainstream conservatives. Under that formula, something a Democratic president does that is not only popular and successful but also generally aligns with Republican policy positions isn’t a challenge for these lawmakers — it’s an opportunity.

On Ukraine in particular, there is a potentially significant downside risk for Republicans. Usually, single issues just don’t matter much in elections. But usually, parties sufficiently tailor their positions to public opinion to avoid being way out of step.

Perhaps that’s where Republicans will wind up by November 2024. Or perhaps voters will ignore foreign policy. It’s hard to know. In the meantime, mainstream conservatives have to choose between allowing their extremist peers to stand as the party’s representatives on Ukraine, and taking them on and risking the possibility that conservative media will turn on them. At the very least, the radicals are turning Ukraine into a wedge issue for the party, while Democrats stand largely united.

It’s bad for the country as well. Robust political parties have the virtue in a democracy of gathering up disparate interests and forcing them to work together and compromise internally, so that they can try to win elections and impose their preferences on the rest of the nation. That promotes healthy democratic behavior; people with narrow interests must learn to work with others, cutting deals when necessary and accepting limits.

Parties facing elections also have a strong incentive to appeal to a broad swath of voters so that voters are happy and re-elect them, while parties out of office figure out why people are unhappy about and propose solutions.

When party factions instead just pick fights, the benefits of democracy are lost.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.