House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, speaks with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., as they arrive for the House Republicans caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on January 3, 2023.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, speaks with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., as they arrive for the House Republicans caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol on January 3, 2023. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

China Just Exposed the GOP’s Real Target: Biden

Less than a month into the new Congress, hopes for the return of adults-in-the-room Republicans atop national-security committees have popped like a balloon.

It’s hard to fault politicians for acting like politicians. But one can hope for better. Some members of Congress, like the 2020 election deniers and those who peddle conspiracy theories about a global Jewish cabal or the military-industrial complex, can’t resist attacking their ideological opponents, even during war. It’s as old as America’s Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. We expect it from the rabid fringe members and from perennial presidential also-rans like Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who leapt at the chance to slap Joe Biden around with the Chinese balloon. 

But the mudslinging also has come quickly from the senior Republicans newly tapped to lead the House Armed Services Committee, House Intelligence Committee, and the minority bench of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And they’re often aiming at the U.S. president as much or more than they’re aiming at Russia and China. 

If Republicans were seriously worried about America’s resolve, they could reject partisan silliness in favor of getting serious about global issues. In times of international crises and direct-action threats on the United States, imagine if they’d march to the White House and stand with the president while making sound, legitimate and level-headed arguments for their policy differences. Instead, they’re sitting down with barking partisan talk show hosts or firing off made-for-Twitter jabs–the fresh round of “Biden is weak on China” volleys we’ve been enduring since last week.

Commentators have howled that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gave committee seats to extremists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and frauds like Rep. George Santos, R-NY. Greene advanced a Jewish space laser conspiracy, while Santos faked 9/11 victimhood to gain money and power. Forget them, for now. It’s the new crop of allegedly moderate GOP committee chairman who deserve more attention and scrutiny. They hold actual power in the system. 

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., just assumed the chairmanship of the once-feared and -respected House Armed Services Committee. Nobody expected Rogers, who voted to overturn 2020 election results, to be a bastion of moderation. He’s a fiercely partisan conservative who used his ranking minority post to challenge Biden on party-line social issues like COVID-vaccine mandates and abortion access for U.S. troops. So it was no surprise to see him use the balloon story to attack Biden. His line goes like this: the Biden administration is so weak on China that Beijing thought it could get away this stunt and almost did; the administration knew about the balloon days before the public spotted it and must have tried to cover it up; and they endangered U.S. civilians and military sites by not immediately shooting it down overhead. 

Rogers’ statement after an F-22’s missile popped the balloon over the Atlantic Ocean: “It’s clear the Biden administration had hoped to hide this national security failure from Congress and the American people. Now, the White House must provide answers about why they decided to allow a CCP spy balloon to cross the United States and what damage to our national security occurred from this decision. The United States must project strength to deter China – this failure is another example of weakness by the Biden administration.” 

On the Senate side, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi has long been a rising national security star among Republicans, representing a key naval shipbuilding state and flying abroad to elite gatherings like the Munich Security Conference. Having succeeded Oklahoma's elderly, climate-denying Sen. James Inhofe atop the SASC, Wicker has arrived with a bang. His bench of Republicans includes two election deniers, Sens. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla. Last week, Wicker echoed the attack-Biden talking points, saying, “Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House.”

On arming Ukraine against Russia, however, Wicker is a full-blown interventionist, as is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Wicker has stood separate from his far-right isolationist party members. Yet he has done so while publicly chastising the president, who has committed $29.3 billion to Ukraine since last February but, the senator said, continues “to slow roll military aid for fear of escalation. The Biden administration has come along begrudgingly as Congress has pushed and pulled and taken the lead.”

It’s clear Wicker is going to carry John McCain’s baton as the Democrats’ chief antagonist on national-security issues. McCain would be proud. Less clear is if he’ll know when to put the baton aside and work with SASC Democrats and the White House on issues like the defense budget and the Pentagon’s pork-barrel spending, and continue to represent the legislature at international fora as McCain so proudly and unabashedly did. 

Hawkish conservatives have publicly hammered Biden for balking on each latest next-level weapon to give, since even before the war began. They’re not stopping now.

It’s early in the Congress, so these episodes may yet prove outliers instead of trending samples of how these leaders will use their new positions of power. As the war with Russia drags on and threats from China worsen, watch the actions of other ambitious conservatives like Reps. Mike Turner of Ohio, new chairman of the powerful intelligence committee, and Mike Gallagher, of Wisconsin, chairman of the new and already controversial Select Committee on China. Both have shown flashes of global statesmanship, traveling in Congressional delegations to important international security policy conferences, promising to avoid the hyper-partisan ways of their Trump-era predecessors. Turner, like Wicker, also opposed the far-right election deniers of 2020 and called for greater U.S. assistance to Ukraine months before Russia’s February 2022 invasion. But he also publicly called out Biden soon after Russian tanks rolled, saying in March that the president’s reticence to send more-advanced weapons to Kyiv sooner “cost Ukrainian lives.” And Gallagher, two days before Russia’s invasion last year, called Biden’s response to the moment “weak and tepid.” While the Biden administration has urged a de-escalatory approach to China, Gallagher on Sunday said, “We have to move heaven and earth to arm Taiwan to the teeth.” 

Since last week’s China balloongate story, too many of America’s politicians have acted like politicians, like it or not. Next week, as world leaders return to serious business at Germany’s annual Munich Security Conference, perhaps the Americans who attend will act less like partisan snipers and more like the proud statesmen we need.