April 21, 2024 - 11:15am

With a price tag of almost $100 billion, a package of military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and other American allies has just passed the United States House of Representatives. The triumph of this bill exemplifies how a politics of burn-it-all-down outrage actually blocks populist policies.

Many “based” Republicans on the Hill have inveighed against funding for Ukraine and insisted on the need to stop the border crisis. Instead, the Republican-controlled House has now passed a bill that realises the principal foreign policy aims of the Biden administration — and populists got nothing on immigration.

Rather than blaming House Speaker Mike Johnson, populist Republicans might instead look to a splinter faction of the GOP that insisted on squandering legislative leverage. Because of the centrality of Ukraine for the Biden White House’s foreign policy, Democrats might well have eventually accepted a legislative package that paired border control measures with Ukraine-Israel funding. Republicans could have passed a broader national security grand bargain in the House and then dared the Democratic-controlled Senate not to act. The precedent would have been the 2023 debt-ceiling standoff, in which House Republicans passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling and forced the White House and Senate Democrats to the negotiating table.

Instead, recalcitrant populists in the House performed judo against themselves. Rather than leveraging the border to get Ukraine funding, they used performative opposition to Ukraine funding to block action on the border. Speaker Johnson put the matter bluntly the other day: “If I put Ukraine in any package, it can’t also be with the border because I lose Republican votes on that rule.”

That is, enough Republican holdouts had pledged to oppose Ukraine funding no matter what. So the only way for Johnson to advance a piece of foreign aid legislation was to turn to House Democrats, who would refuse to support any border-control measures. Thus, border security could not be part of a foreign aid package.

And no-compromise holdouts sacrificed another point of leverage when a vote came for a separate border security bill on Saturday. GOP holdouts on the Rules Committee refused to back a rule for the border bill, and Democrats on the committee did not budge to help Republicans pass their immigration priority. As a result, the border bill couldn’t make it through and had to be brought to the floor under suspension of the rules — which meant that it required a two-thirds majority to pass. The bill ended up garnering 215 votes (to 199 opposed), so it would have passed if the Rules Committee had approved it. Thus, a splinter of the GOP on the Rules Committee ensured the death of a border security bill before it even hit the House as a whole.

This is a big failure. And perhaps that’s the point. For some populists, this complete sacrifice of legislative leverage may be a policy disappointment but a messaging opportunity. Perhaps the most prized ornament among many Republicans on Capitol Hill is a badge of angry defeat — won during the shutdowns and failed “Obamacare” repeals of the past. This debacle is another chance to rage against the “uniparty”, fret about the betrayal by the Republican “establishment”, and sneer at “America Last” foreign policy.

Yet there’s something hollow about this rage. While some of the most Trumpy Republicans on the Hill accuse Johnson of violating “America First” principles, Trump himself did not lobby against this bill in any public forum. In the lead-up to the vote, Trump complained that Europe should pay more but also said that Ukraine’s defence was “important to us.” If there’s one thing Trump’s known for, it’s letting the world know when he’s unhappy, so his silence on Johnson’s funding gambit may be revealing. Both Trump’s critics and supposed emissaries might have a vision of “Trumpism” that differs from the realities of Donald Trump as a political actor.

In any case, the debacle on the border casts a bright light on the disparity between an outrage politics optimised for social media clicks and the discipline required for a real pro-worker agenda.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.