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The GOP’s divides

From Ukraine to entitlement programs, the issues that are likely to dominate the 2024 GOP primary.
The GOP’s divides
“An elephant standing at a fork in the road, digital art.” (DALL-E)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, March 15, 2023. The 2024 elections are 601 days away.

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A guide to the issues dividing the GOP field

Politicians from the same party — sit down, this might shock you — largely tend to agree with each other on the issues. But every presidential primary has the few defining cleavages that split up the field: the Iraq War for the 2008 Democrats, immigration for the 2016 Republicans, health care for the 2020 Democrats, and so on.

This morning, I want to take a look at three policy debates already beginning to cause splits among the prospective 2024 Republican field. At the end, I’ll offer some thoughts on what these divides tell us about the direction of the GOP.

Let’s start with the one that has roiled the party in just the last 24 hours:

I. Ukraine.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson pried open the GOP field’s latest chasm on Monday, when he announced the results of a survey he circulated to the candidates about Ukraine policy. Carlson, the nation’s highest-rated cable TV anchor, is also a leading right-wing voice against providing Ukraine with aid to combat the Russian invasion.

The most attention has been paid to the answer given by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who indicated to Carlson that he would not place a high premium on assisting Kyiv. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests...becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis’ comments placed him on the same side of the issue as former president Donald Trump, who agreed that opposing Russia is not a “vital American national strategic interest.” Instead, Trump called for European countries to fund Ukraine and expressed confidence that he could “quickly work out a deal” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to end the war.

Along with Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), most of the rest of the prospective GOP field remains staunchly behind aiding Ukraine. “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party,” former vice president Mike Pence declared, vowing to back Ukraine until the war is won. Two other ex-Trump officials, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, made similar statements.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, never shy to share his thoughts, told Axios that DeSantis’ response sounded “like Neville Chamberlain talking about when Germany had designs on Czechoslovakia.”

  • 📊 Where Republican voters stand: GOP support for Ukraine aid has steadily dropped over the course of the year-long war. An NBC News poll in January found that 32% of Republicans support the U.S. sending more funding and weapons to Ukraine; 63% were opposed.
(Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

II. Entitlement reform.

Since the dramatic Biden-MTG showdown at the State of the Union, the issue of whether to reform Social Security and Medicare — which both face insolvency within the next decade — has dominated Washington.

Congressional Republicans have largely backed away from discussing such reforms, but not everyone in the Republican presidential field has gotten the memo. Many have called for updating the programs to avoid their bankruptcy, including Haley’s advocacy for changing the retirement age for “those in their 20s coming into the system.” (Medicare eligibility currently starts at 65; the full Social Security retirement age is 67.)

Pence, too, has said entitlement reforms should be “on the table for the long term,” although he has not outlined any specific proposals.

This is one issue where Trump and Biden spy the same political opportunity. The former president, whose budget proposals in office included cuts to Medicare and Social Security, is now calling for the programs to be safeguarded — and bashing any rivals who say otherwise. (Trump recently dipped into the annals of Democratic messaging to designate DeSantis as a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy.”)

For his part, the Florida governor now says “we’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans” — but, as Trump delights in noting, he is one of several potential GOP candidates who backed Paul Ryan’s plans to effectively privatize both entitlement programs while serving in the House. Pompeo, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott also fall into this category, although they have not said recently if they stand by that position.

This is sure to be a potent line of attack Trump will use against all of them as the primary continues.

  • 📊 Where Republican voters stand: A CNN poll released yesterday found that 59% of Republicans call it “essential” for their eventual nominee to pledge to maintain Medicare and Social Security as they are. 10% said that was “not important,” while 30% called it “important, but not essential.”
(Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

III. Trump.

Finally, the third major divide facing the GOP right now — in some ways, the most obvious and existential one. Obviously, anyone running for the 2024 Republican nomination this year is competing against Trump, so they are bound to have some issue with him — but the real divide here is how potential candidates have gone about signaling their opposition to Trump.

I split these arguments into two buckets: the practical case and the moral case. The practical case is the more popular one: telling Republican voters that, as great as Trump is, he is simply not electable and also not effective at governing.

DeSantis has begun making this case slowly, telling Trump to “check out the scoreboard” of who had won re-election and boasting that his governorship has been free of “palace intrigue.” DeSantis is attempting to portray himself as a ruthless executor of the MAGA agenda, in contrast to Trump’s chaos and thin legislative record. “We don’t have any drama,” DeSantis said in Iowa of his administration last week. “It’s just execution every single day, and we end up beating the left every single day for four years.” (DeSantis’ subtle slags against Trump’s Covid policies, such as keeping Dr. Fauci around, also fall into this category.)

Haley, with her calls for a “new generation of leadership,” has been sounding this tune as well. She and Pompeo have both repeatedly noted the GOP’s losing track record in elections since Trump took over the party, making the case that he simply cannot win over a broad cross-section of Americans.

Then, there is the case against Trump the person, not just Trump the candidate: those few Republican contenders who dare to touch January 6th and other broader arguments against the former president. At the top of this list is Pence, who used a black-tie D.C. dinner this weekend to say that Trump’s “reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol” on January 6h.

“I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable," Pence added. Similarly, Christie has called January 6th “a riot that was incited by Donald Trump” and suggested that his former ally is not a “rational, sane person.” Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is the other potential candidate in this category; he has said that Trump’s calls to overturn the Constitution is “tearing at the fabric of our democracy.”

  • 📊 Where Republican voters stand: In a YouGov/Economist poll earlier this month, Trump still rated a 75% favorability rating among Republicans — suggesting that even if some Republicans don’t plan to vote for him in a primary, they still largely approve of him, which will make it difficult for other candidates to stage attacks. (As for the electability critique, CNN’s poll found more Republicans care about the 2024 nominee sharing their views than being able to win a general election, an inverse of Democrats in 2020.)
(Gabe Fleisher / Wake Up To Politics)

IV. An emerging divide.

Not enough of the Republican field had weighed in on this one to make a fancy graphic, but here’s another issue to watch as the 2024 race kicks off: the divide over the party’s relationship with Big Business, and whether it’s “conservative” to use government power to target companies.

This divide has been sparked by DeSantis, who has gone to blows with Disney and other companies over so-called “woke” initiatives.

Several Republican contenders have signaled their disagreement with his approach: “[Going] after someone because they politically disagree with you, that ain’t what were about,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu recently told Fox News. “That’s not what Republicans are about.”

Pence has also called DeSantis’ actions “beyond the scope of what I as a conservative, limited-government Republican would be prepared to do,” even comparing the Florida governor to Gavin Newsom, not a popular name in Republican circles.

This will be another fight that will likely be litigated on the Republican debate stage.  

V. Toppling the stool.

For more than four decades, since the rise of Ronald Reagan, the GOP has been run by what is known as the “three-legged stool” of Republicanism: fiscal conservatives, foreign interventionists, and evangelical Christians.

The divides I outlined today show a party on the verge of toppling at least two-thirds of that equation. If Trump or DeSantis is the nominee — and they boast the support of a combined 80% of Republican primary voters in most polls — the 2024 Republican presidential nominee will likely opposing reforming entitlements and aiding Ukraine, positions a far cry from the Gipper’s. (The third leg, evangelicals, remains largely intact, although notably neither Trump nor DeSantis likes to talk much about abortion.)

Notably, DeSantis has moved between the two GOP iterations: during the Obama era, he was a vocal supporter of arming Ukraine and of rejiggering Social Security and Medicare. But, either way, he has moved into the Trump camp now — which is why he will likely center his campaign around portraying Trump as an ineffective messenger and legislator for those initiatives. (Trump has noted DeSantis’ conversion: “Whatever I want, he wants,” the ex-president mocked on Tuesday.)

The 2024 primary, then, will likely be the last gasp in the contest between the Trump and Reagan models of Republicanism: spending vs. slashing, isolationist vs. interventionist, populist vs. conservative.

And even so, a mere glance at the polls shows that the fight has really already been won.

The Rundown.


  • U.S. prices were 6% higher in February compared to the year before, down from the 6.4% year-over-year increase in January. It’s the eighth straight month the annual rate of inflation has declined, but inflation remains far higher than the Federal Reserve’s 2% target.

SVB collapse.

  • The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have launched investigations into the Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) collapse.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) unveiled a bill to restore regulations of mid-sized banks, such as SVB, that they say could have prevented the failure. The regulations were repealed by a 2018 law signed into former President Donald Trump and backed by lawmakers in both parties.


  • The Pentagon says a Russian fighter jet collided with a U.S. drone on Tuesday, forcing officials to crash the drone into the Black Sea. Russia denies the collision, which the White House called “reckless.”
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky are planning to speak soon for the first time since the Ukraine war began, per the Wall Street Journal. Biden and Xi are also expected to hold a phone call soon, the White House says.

East Palestine.

  • Ohio’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Railway on Tuesday, accusing the company of violating state and federal environmental law as part of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine

In the states.

  • A Democratic state senator in Nebraska has blocked the state legislature from passing any bills for the past three weeks, holding up unrelated legislation to protest a measure that would ban gender-affirming surgery for transgender minors.


White House

President Biden will deliver remarks on prescription drug costs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Vice President Harris will headline a Democratic fundraiser in Paramus, New Jersey, and tape an interview for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”


The Senate will hold a procedural vote to advance Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to India and, if that vote succeeds, a final vote on his confirmation. Garcetti’s nomination has languished for two years over allegations that he ignored sexual harassment claims against his top aide while he served as mayor of Los Angeles.

The chamber is also set to hold votes advancing or confirming on nominees to be Deputy Under Secretary of the Treasury, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, and Assistant Secretary of Defense.

The House is out until March 22.


The Supreme Court has no oral arguments this week.

A federal district judge in Texas will hold a hearing in a key case challenging the FDA’s 2000 approval of mifepristone, an abortion medication. The judge originally sought to hide the scheduling of today’s hearing from the public, a highly unusual move.

Michael Cohen will testify before the Manhattan grand jury investigating his former boss Donald Trump’s 2016 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Cohen, who also testified for three hours on Monday, would likely be a key witness if prosecutors move forward with an indictment, despite his own past conviction for false testimony.

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: Taylor Swift now has a city in the U.S. named after her. Temporarily, at least.

The mayor of Glendale, Arizona (pop. 249,630) announced that his jurisdiction will be renamed “Swift City” for Friday and Saturday, when the pop star will be performing two sold-out shows in the city to kick off her new tour.

“Glendale is so ‘enchanted to meet’ her,” the mayor declared, borrowing from a Swift song. Here’s his full, pun-laden proclamation:

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— Gabe