With inflation, increasing crime and other domestic dynamics topping voters' concerns, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum that "all politics is local" seems much more reflective of Tuesday's election than the thought that "all politics is international."
And yet, global issues will be influenced by localized races — especially issues regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The stakes are already apparent, as evidenced by recent Republican and Democratic factions' actions reflecting fissures in U.S. support.
Given the GOP's momentum, the most consequential concern for Ukraine and its allies is the specter of eroding Republican congressional support. A preview was seen in the passing of the $40 billion Ukraine aid bill in May, when every "no" in the U.S. House's 368-57 vote came from Republicans.
Based on words heard intently in Washington, Moscow and a besieged Kyiv, that total might grow if a Republican victory elevates Kevin McCarthy from minority leader to speaker. "I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they're not going to write a blank check to Ukraine," the California congressman recently said.
Actually, according to the Hudson Institute think tank (considered conservative by most observers), a lack of oversight — or a "blank check" — is just one of "Ten Myths about U.S. Aid to Ukraine." In an analysis, Hudson states that 16 separate reporting requirements mean "there has never been more accountability or transparency measures in place for U.S. foreign assistance than what is available for Ukraine aid."
Yet this fact, and other debunked myths, probably won't quell irresponsible, irrepressible representatives like Georgia's Marjorie Taylor Greene, who thundered on Thursday at a rally held by former President Donald Trump that "under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine." Which prompted Liz Cheney, Greene's congressional colleague from Wyoming, to tweet: "This is exactly what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants. If we would have had Republicans like this in the 1980s, we would have lost the Cold War."
Meanwhile, not to be outdone by the right wing in sending the wrong signals, an uncertain trumpet was sounded by some Democrats last week when the Congressional Progressive Caucus caused its own controversy with an open letter to President Joe Biden that it quickly shut down after blowback at home and abroad.
The missive missed on many fronts. Including the front line itself, as the letter didn't seem to account for recent Ukrainian gains on the battlefield, since it urged Biden to "make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire" and to "engage in direct talks with Russia" — all moves an army on the move wouldn't want to do.
The reaction — and retraction — was quick, with the letter taken back in a day. Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, worried that the impression in Washington, D.C., would be that "our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent" to McCarthy's statement, lamely blamed congressional staff for releasing the letter "without vetting," despite her signature among 29 others (including Minnesota Fifth District Democrat Ilhan Omar).
"The statement made by the minority leader, like the progressive letter, is clung to in Moscow as a sign that American support for Ukraine, American resolution to stop Kremlin aggression, might be weakening," said John Herbst, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during three years of the George W. Bush administration. Herbst, now the senior director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, added "That makes it unfortunate — even though the progressive letter was withdrawn quickly, and the McCarthy statement was more nuanced than what was discussed publicly."
Together, the signals from the minority leader and the letter "makes people in Kyiv much more nervous because they see the United States as their biggest backer," said Steven Pifer, a former diplomat who like Herbst served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine (during the last two years of the Clinton administration).
Now a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Pifer added that "Russia is fighting a two-front war. One front is on the battlefield against Ukraine. But the other front is: Can they undermine Western readiness, Western ability to sustain support for Ukraine? And I think that they look at this and they get the sense that there are cracks appearing in terms of unity in the United States to back Ukraine. And so that probably encourages them, and it reduces whatever incentives they may feel that they have to find a realistic negotiation to get out of the mess that they created."
Russia's two-front war is a slog militarily in part due to American arms. In its other battle — to undermine Western readiness and resolve — Moscow may be running into another formidable foe: American hearts, which may be stouter than Moscow — or Washington, for that matter — anticipated.
That's the inference from two recent polls, including one from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which included this conclusion: "Despite the high price tag associated with U.S. assistance to Ukraine, solid majorities of the American public remain supportive of U.S. assistance (71%) and military transfers (72%) to Ukraine. Indeed, 58% are willing to continue to support the country 'as long as it takes,' even if American households will have to pay higher prices for gas and food."
A University of Maryland poll suggested the same, but the partisan divide that may be leading McCarthy to cater (if not crater) to his caucus was pronounced. Overall, respondents not only remained highly supportive of Ukraine, but were willing to pay higher energy costs as a result: 60% overall said so, including 80% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans.
The area with the most unanimity? Only 38% are willing to use U.S. troops to repel Russia, with a closer 40% to 35% Democrat/Republican split.
"A lot of issues [voters] do care about are due to Ukraine," said Paul Poast, a University of Chicago assistant professor of political science who is a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council, who added that the war has disrupted "everything from food prices" to energy "shocks."
Both former ambassadors see a clear correlation, too. "The smart play, the economical play," Herbst said, "is to help Ukraine beat Moscow so we don't have to fight." If Putin "were to win in Ukraine, and [then] seize one of the Baltic states, the cost to our economy will dwarf the cost right now of the amount of aid we're providing. … We can ignore Putin's threat. But when it's at our doorstep, we can't. And in this case, our doorstep is our eastern members of NATO."
Pifer, concurring, concluded: "In Ukraine, to stop Putin, we're contributing money and weapons. If it's the Baltic states, we're contributing money, weapons and the lives of American soldiers. So, I think it's better to stop Putin in Ukraine."
That can happen — indeed, is happening — because of Ukrainian courage backed by Western weapons and aid. But this virtuous endeavor depends on resolute Republicans and Democrats winning, which is why next Tuesday all politics, beyond being local, is also geopolitical.