Washington, DC – A schism in the United States conservative movement is on display among Republicans, with the presumed presidential frontrunners attending separate major events and constituencies divided on issues such as aid to Ukraine, defence 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 headline the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that kicked off this week just outside Washington, DC. Once the dominant event in conservative politics, it has lost some of its lustre as it embraced Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) constituency.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, considered Trump’s strongest competitor, is skipping CPAC in favour of an exclusive donor retreat sponsored by the anti-tax Club For Growth conservative organisation. Trump, once supported by the group, has not been invited to the closed-door gathering being held in Palm Beach, Florida, near his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The duelling events have divided prominent Republicans who served under Trump, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo choosing CPAC, former Vice President Mike Pence heading to the retreat and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, speaking at both. Haley announced her 2024 presidential run last month.
“There are always divides in parties and those become heightened by presidential primaries,” Republican consultant Doug Heye told Al Jazeera. It is not clear at the moment how big that Republican divide is, he said.
DeSantis has not yet declared his candidacy but is already behaving like a man on the stump, as he tours across the country promoting his new book The Courage to be Free, which lays out his policy agenda.
The governor has brandished his conservative agenda and won praise from many on the right by signing a series of laws, including on cultural issues, as well putting a limit on corporate America, some of his favourite targets.
On Monday, DeSantis signed a bill to end the self-governing status of Disney World, after the corporation last year criticised his Parental Rights in Education law, which limited teaching on gender identity and sexual orientation. DeSantis’s tough stance towards big business stands in sharp contrast to the previous embrace of many Republicans. “In this environment, old-guard corporate Republicanism is not up to the task at hand,” DeSantis wrote in his book.
Earlier this week, Trump unveiled a trade proposal which would follow his previous tough line towards China. His policy, which calls for universal baseline tariffs and revoking Beijing’s most favoured nation trading status, angered a major Republican constituency: rural Americans, including farmers who depend on the Chinese market.
Potential presidential candidates will face challenges in a conservative movement today made up of various, and at times conflicting, philosophies.
“It’s not clear yet whether any divides are more or less than in the past. How [the] debt ceiling is handled may be telling on this,” Heye said.
Raising or suspending the US debt ceiling, the amount of money the US is allowed to owe, is the responsibility of Congress, which has done it 20 times since 2002. But some conservatives want more spending cuts before considering an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and are threatening to allow the US to default rather than relent. A default, which has never occurred in US history, would have disastrous consequences for its economy.
Republicans are also divided on defence spending. A large defence budget was once a unified party priority, but some on the political right want budget cuts to include defence in order to bring down federal spending. Their opponents argue that runs counter to conservative ideals.
US military and financial support for Ukraine has also split conservatives.
“I will work with anyone and everyone … to end wars … to stop sending money to Ukraine,” Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican, said at the Turning Point conservative conference in January. Trump has also been critical of Democratic President Joe Biden’s Ukraine actions.
“If you watch and understand the moves being made by Biden on Ukraine, he is systematically, but perhaps unknowingly, 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 open-ended blank cheque”.
Other Republicans running or expected to run for president strongly disagree. Asked if the US should just open the chequebook, Haley told Fox News: “We shouldn’t send blank cheques. We shouldn’t put troops on the ground. We should give them the equipment to defend themselves because this is a war that they’re winning. This is not a war about Russia and Ukraine. It’s about freedom. And it’s one that we have to win.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence agreed. “We’ve got to stay in the fight,” he said on another Fox News show. “It’s absolutely essential that we see it through.”
Republican consultant Alice Stewart called those in the party who want to discontinue aid to Ukraine a “vocal minority”.
“The majority of Republicans understand the need and value to support Ukraine,” she explained, but they want more transparency over how the money is spent.
While some of the policy differences in the movement may be stark, veteran Republican leader Saul Anuzis told Al Jazeera the divide was healthy for the conservative cause.
“In whole, it is a centre-right movement that comes together” to oppose the Democratic agenda, Anuzis, a former head of the Michigan state Republican Party, said. He called it a “natural progression” of growth as the movement becomes bigger and broader.
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,” said Stewart.
Trump has been criticised for a slow campaign start after announcing his re-election bid in November. The CPAC speech is one of the few big events he’s held since then. He has mostly confined his campaign activity to releasing policy papers and posting on his social media site criticism of DeSantis as well as numerous attacks on his favourite targets, Biden and the media.
If Trump does not fare well in the straw poll, it could raise questions about his campaign. If another candidate fares better than expected, he or she will likely get a boost.