Obama, Biden and Trump at Trump's inauguration in 2017 (via GPA photo archive)

From the Center

In a remarkable 48-hour period last week, the two most recent American presidents summarized the choice before the nation’s voters as starkly as could possibly be imagined. Joe Biden and Donald Trump both traveled to locations that they believe exemplify the central rationale for their candidacies in next year’s elections and symbolize the way they envision their respective leadership goals.

Between now and next November, the parties will spend more than a billion dollars attempting to persuade the nation’s voters, thousands of advertisements will be run extolling the candidates’ virtues and castigating their opponents, and trillions of words will be written about their efforts, their agendas, and their strategies. 

But none of that will frame the election as simply as the two men did in the first half of last week. On Monday, Biden traveled secretly to Eastern Europe, visiting the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and appearing with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to declare his commitment to that country’s freedom and to denounce the aggression and violence that Vladimir Putin was inflicting against the Ukrainian people.

Just two days later, Trump traveled to Ohio, visiting the small village of East Palestine and appearing with Mayor Trent Conaway to declare his commitment to that community’s safety and to denounce the federal government for its unwillingness to do more to protect the city’s people against the health hazards caused by the recent chemical spill there.

Biden’s trip to Ukraine was designed to showcase his leadership skills, specifically his ability to unify the west in support of Ukraine in its war against Russia. Trump’s trip to East Palestine was designed to showcase his leadership skills, specifically his ability to reassure working class voters that they were not forgotten. Biden’s message was about competence: Trump’s was about sticking up for the little guy. Both men used their respective visits to remind Americans of what they hoped would be the most salient personal characteristic that would determine their votes next year.

Biden’s government experience and Trump’s cultural populism were on full display, but so was the dramatic polarization that now characterizes our politics. In the year since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine,  American support for Ukraine has gradually diminished, largely along party lines. While Biden’s Democratic allies still back our financial and military commitment to Ukraine’s residence, Republicans has become much more ambivalent toward ongoing U.S. involvement. 

Polls show that GOP voters are evenly divided on whether aid to Ukraine should be maintained or decreased, and Republican leaders are just as noticeably split. Senate leader Mitch McConnell traveled to the Munich Security Conference last week along with almost fifty other members of Congress to demonstrate their support for Ukraine. At the same time, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has continued to warn about his concerns about writing a “blank check” to Ukraine without proper oversight and members of his caucus have been scathing in their denunciation of the Biden Administration’s efforts there.

A more ominous division is emerging in the nascent GOP presidential primary. Trump’s hostility toward Ukraine is now being echoed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, while Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and others have embraced a Reagan-Bush era attitude toward this America’s traditional overseas obligations. But Trump’s visit to East Palestine underscored the strength of the emerging isolationism among Republicans and laid the groundwork for what is likely to be a pitched fight, both in the GOP primary and possible the general election next year about the role the United States should be playing on a world stage.

The growing tendency among American voters to look inward has become most apparent over the last several years on issues relating to international trade, as leaders from both parties have retreated from the bipartisan consensus in support of robust global economic involvement that has existed for several decades. But now this turn toward protectionism may be spreading into other types of international engagement as well. And our first major military challenge of the 21st century is opening a window into whether American voters will be similarly reluctant to involve ourselves overseas when the stakes are not profit, but freedom.

It’s too early to tell whether the spreading Republican antipathy toward Ukraine is simply knee-jerk partisanship opposition to Biden or a return to the pre-Reagan mid-20th century isolationism that characterized conservatism of that era. But either way, the contrast between Eastern Europe and Eastern Ohio last week is an early indicator that Ukraine is about to become a partisan issue in next year’s campaign.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.