The most charitable thing to say about the letter on Ukraine from the Progressive Caucus is that its members simply didn’t understand that it would make Vladimir Putin’s day.
Being clueless is forgivable. Deliberately undermining the Ukrainians as they fight and die defending their democracy is not.
From the New Jersey delegation, only Rep. Bonnie-Watson Coleman (D-12th) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-8th) signed the letter. More on that below.
But first, the letter itself. It urged President Biden to conduct direct negotiations with Russia, cutting Ukraine out of the loop, as if the United States were a colonial overlord with the right to shape Ukraine’s future. Worse, direct talks would signal to Putin that the United States was open to striking an easier peace deal than Ukraine would on its own. The letter even dangles the promise of sanctions relief.
Direct talks could only encourage Putin to hang tough, in hopes that he could salvage at least a partial victory by gobbling up portions of eastern Ukraine. It would also raise doubts about our resolve among allies in Europe just as skyrocketing fuel costs test their resolve.
That’s why Biden has been clear from the start that he will not talk to the Russians without Ukraine. “Nothing about Ukraine, without Ukraine,” he says.
The good news is that only 30 members signed the letter, and they retracted it after facing a storm of criticism from fellow Democrats.
“I was furious with my colleagues when I saw this,” says Mikie Sherrill, D-11th, a former Navy helicopter pilot who specialized on Russia policy. “War is awful, and it has to be avoided. But not at all costs. The Ukrainians have determined that living under Russian rule, putting all their wealth in the hands of a few oligarchs, having no say in their future, not being able to speak freely — they have decided that’s not how they want to live, and they have that right. To suggest we should undermine them in that fight is offensive to me.”
The letter came just as Republicans began to seriously wobble in their support of Ukraine. The $40 billion aid package passed in May was opposed by 57 GOP members of the House, and 11 GOP senators. And a few weeks ago, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the likely Speaker if Republicans take the House in November, warned that Republicans may cut aid to Ukraine next year.
“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” he said. “They just won’t do it.”
Asked to explain why they signed the letter, Payne and Watson-Coleman offered confusing answers. Payne said he did not regret signing the letter, but that he supported the decision to retract it. Both Democrats said they support aid for Ukraine, and agreed that Biden should not negotiate directly with Russia – which directly contradicts the letter.
Both said they regret the timing of the letter’s release, coming as Ukraine is scoring big wins on the battlefield. But that begs the question: Would it have been preferable somehow to undercut Ukraine in July or August?
For members of the Progressive Caucus, this is another blow that underscores their status as a fringe element of the party. It’s the same pattern we saw when members of the caucus embraced “defund the police” as a slogan. It’s not only bad policy; it’s political malpractice.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-7th, who served in the State Department under President Obama, said he “strongly disagreed” with the letter. But he noted that it was fellow Democrats who forced the course-correction.
“They did withdraw the letter,” he said. “Kevin McCarthy did not withdraw his much more damaging comment that Republicans will look to cut aid to Ukraine if they win the majority.”
True that. The 30 Democrats who signed this letter do not speak for the party, as we just saw. They were forced to retreat by the 194 Democrats who declined to sign.
Democrats are still the more reliable party when it comes to confronting Putin, a war criminal who is pounding Ukrainian cities to dust as winter approaches. Voters who want to help Ukrainians stop him should remember that on Election Day.
More: Tom Moran Columns
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism