Washington, D.C. – A schism in the United States conservative movement can be seen among Republicans, with the supposed presidential frontrunners attending separate major events and constituencies split over issues such as aid to Ukraine, defense spending, the debt ceiling and the role of the US government.
Former President Donald Trump, who has already declared his intention to run for a second term in 2024, will head the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that kicked off just outside Washington, DC, this week. Once the dominant event in conservative politics, it has lost some of its luster as it embraced Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) constituency.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, considered Trump’s strongest competitor, is skipping CPAC in favor of an exclusive donor retreat sponsored by the conservative anti-tax organization Club For Growth. Trump, once supported by the group, has not been invited to the closed-door rally held in Palm Beach, Florida, near his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The dueling events have divided prominent Republicans who served under Trump, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo electing CPAC, former Vice President Mike Pence en route to the retreat and Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, who both spoke. Haley announced her 2024 presidential run last month.
“There are always divisions in parties and they are exacerbated by presidential primaries,” Republican adviser Doug Heye told Al Jazeera. It’s not clear at this point how big that Republican divide is, he said.
DeSantis has yet to announce his candidacy, but is already acting like a man on the stump, as he tours the country promoting his new book The Courage to be Free, which lays out his policy agenda.
The governor swung his conservative agenda and won praise from many on the right by signing a series of bills, including on cultural issues, and placing a cap on corporate America, some of his favorite targets.
On Monday, DeSantis signed a bill to end Disney World’s self-governing status after the company criticized its parental rights in education bill last year, which limited education on gender identity and sexual orientation. DeSantis’ tough stance on big business contrasts sharply with many Republicans’ previous embrace. “In this environment, old guard Republican corporate life is no match for the task at hand,” DeSantis wrote in his book.
Earlier this week, Trump unveiled a trade proposal that would follow his previous hard line on China. His policies, which called for universal base tariffs and the revocation of Beijing’s most favored nation trade status, angered a large Republican constituency: rural Americans, including farmers dependent on the Chinese market.
Potential presidential candidates will face challenges in a conservative movement today made up of different, and sometimes conflicting, philosophies.
“It is not yet clear whether there is more or less division than in the past. How (the) debt ceiling is treated can say something about this,” Heye said.
Raising or suspending the US debt ceiling, the amount the US is allowed to pay, is the responsibility of Congress, which has done it 20 times since 2002. But some conservatives want more spending cuts before considering raising the US debt ceiling. and threaten to let the US default rather than give in. A bankruptcy, unprecedented in US history, would have disastrous consequences for the US economy.
Republicans are also split on defense spending. A large defense budget was once a priority for a united party, but some on the political right want defense cuts to reduce federal spending. According to their opponents, this goes against conservative ideals.
US military and financial aid to Ukraine has also divided conservatives.
“I will work with everyone … to end wars … to stop sending money to Ukraine,” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican, said at Turning Point’s conservative conference in January. Trump has also been critical of Democratic President Joe Biden’s actions in Ukraine.
“If you watch and understand Biden’s moves against Ukraine, he is systematically, but perhaps unconsciously, pushing us into what could soon be WORLD WAR III,” Trump said on Truth Social, his social media platform.
DeSantis told Fox News last month that US aid was little more than “an outstanding blank check”.
Other Republicans running or expected to run for president strongly disagree. When asked if the US should just open the checkbook, Haley told Fox News, “We shouldn’t be sending blank checks. We shouldn’t put troops on the ground. We should give them the equipment to defend themselves because this is a war they are winning. This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s about freedom. And it’s one we have to win.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence agreed. “We have to stay in the fight,” he said on another Fox News program. “It’s absolutely essential that we see it through.”
Republican adviser Alice Stewart called those in the party who want to cut aid to Ukraine a “vocal minority”.
“The majority of Republicans understand the need and value of supporting Ukraine,” she explained, but they want more transparency about how the money is spent.
While some of the policy differences in the movement may be significant, veteran Republican leader Saul Anuzis told Al Jazeera that the divide was healthy for the conservative cause.
“Overall, it’s a center-right movement that is coming together” to oppose the Democratic agenda, said Anuzis, a former head of the Michigan state Republican Party. He called it a “natural growth” as the movement gets bigger and wider.
An indication of which faction is dominant could come with CPAC’s straw poll, which used to be a strong indicator of conservative support for a candidate.
“The results of that will be interesting,” Stewart said.
Trump has been criticized for a slow campaign start after announcing his re-election bid in November. The CPAC speech is one of the few major events he has delivered since then. He has largely limited his campaign activities to releasing policy documents and posting criticisms of DeSantis on his social media site, as well as numerous attacks on his favorite targets, Biden, and the media.
If Trump doesn’t do well in the straw poll, it could raise questions about his campaign. If another candidate does better than expected, he or she will probably get a boost.