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Mitch McConnell’s Choice About the Border Crisis

Ukraine funding and border enforcement are issues that demand to be treated separately.

Senators Meet For Weekly Policy Luncheons
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Mitch McConnell has a choice to make—a choice between Joe Biden on one side and Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party’s voters on the other. 

Where does the minority leader stand on border security?

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The answer, unfortunately, is that he’s much closer to Biden than he is to the grassroots, the state leaders, and the presumptive presidential nominee of his own party.

For other Republicans, restoring the rule of law on the nation’s Southern border takes priority over any kind of global mission. Only the economy ranked higher than immigration among Republican voters’ concerns in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. And the voters who prioritize immigration are the ones driving Donald Trump straight to the presidential nomination—in Iowa, 64 percent of those who named immigration as their top issue voted for Trump; in New Hampshire, an overwhelming 79 percent did.

Immigration commanded twice as much support (30 percent) as foreign policy (15 percent) in the New Hampshire contest, and nearly three times as much in Iowa (34 percent to 12 percent). 

For a border state like Texas, immigration is foreign policy, to the utmost extent that a state can have one. But President Biden has created an extraordinary, and extra-constitutional, situation. He has not taken care to faithfully execute the laws as they apply to the Southern border. He has instead pursued a policy of nullification—unilateral presidential nullification of federal law. By mobilizing the Texas National Guard to secure the border, what Governor Abbott has done is in fact the opposite of what was once envisioned by John C. Calhoun: This is not the repudiation of a federal law, but an attempt to uphold it when the president refuses to do so.

So far the Supreme Court (with Amy Coney Barrett as the deciding vote in a 5–4 split), has narrowly sided with Biden over Texas. But Republican governors, from conservatives like Florida’s Ron DeSantis to moderates like New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu, are with Abbott: some two dozen have spoken up in Abbott’s defense.

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McConnell, however, treats border security as a bargaining chip in a play to increase U.S. aid to Ukraine by another $60 billion. The bundling of these two distinct issues—ostensibly to get Democratic buy-in for a stronger border, though in reality at least as much about getting Republicans to quell their doubts about underwriting Kiev—is detrimental to both of them, yet Biden and McConnell prefer it.

Meanwhile, supporters of more aid to Ukraine, frustrated by the GOP’s prioritization of American border security, often stress that more arms and financial backing for Volodymyr Zelensky’s government does not come at the expense of U.S. border enforcement. They are exasperated whenever Republicans talk about the border when the question put to them involves Ukraine. These are separate issues.

Yet for that very reason, the border and Ukraine ought to be treated distinctly and debated separately in Congress—no matter the desires and machinations of Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell. Skeptics and supporters of Ukraine aid should both be more satisfied by more careful and thorough deliberations about America’s role in the conflict with Russia. Such deliberation is absolutely necessary if American commitments are to have any chance of enjoying adequate long-term popular support. There is no alternative to persuading Republicans who are currently dubious of Kiev’s prospects: Support from one party, the Democrats, will not be enough, even if the Democrats have Mitch McConnell (and Nikki Haley) on their side.

For Republicans whose first concern is their own nation’s border, and who have reason to dread yet another open-ended conflict without clear and measurable conditions for success, the benefits of decoupling border security and Ukraine aid are abundantly obvious. The border must have our full attention and full funding for effective enforcement—the greatest obstacle to which, right now, is not inadequate funds but inadequate will and ability on the part of President Biden. The Senate deal that McConnell wants to strike will be utterly useless if Biden puts any further Border Patrol resources to as little use as he presently puts what he already has. Ukraine aid, meanwhile, must be scrutinized much more carefully if the result of American spending is to be any better than the outcome of the $2 trillion spent in Afghanistan, another conflict in which victory was ill-defined yet promised to be right around the corner. The failed foreign policy endorsed by internationalist Republicans for 20 years imposes serious constraints on the willingness of today’s GOP to try more of the same.

This is why Donald Trump is once again set to become the Republican nominee. And it’s why the party has moved in his direction, with a greater priority on immigration and on “America First” in a domestic sense, and with growing skepticism about foreign intervention. But even as the rest of the party has reoriented itself—away from the global and toward the national—the party’s leader in the Senate has remained what he was in the era before Trump. Yet even as he nears the end of his career, Mitch McConnell has a choice to make, not between his own dashed dreams of an internationalist party and the reality of today’s GOP, but rather between the two practical options of the Republican consensus—or Joe Biden.

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