Steven V. Roberts: Standing up to bullies

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 28, 2024

By Steven V. Roberts

“The way you take care of a bully is you bloody their nose,” Rep. Tony Gonzales, a Texas Republican, told CNN. A 20-year Navy veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gonzales knows something about bullies, and he was referring to several different thugs.

Obviously, one is Vladimir Putin, who suffered a major setback when Gonzales and 100 other House Republicans joined a bipartisan majority to support a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine. After that vote, passage by the Senate and approval by the president were assured. 

Gonzales was also referring to Donald Trump and his toadies in the House — the Texan called some of his fellow Republicans “real scumbags” — who oppose Ukraine aid and have retreated from their party’s Reaganite doctrine of “peace through strength.”

By standing up to those bullies, Gonzales and his pragmatic allies in the GOP have demonstrated a larger point: There still is a “sensible center” in Congress — and the country — that rejects extremists and understands that compromise is the essential lubricant of an effective government.

“If it wasn’t obvious before, it’s obvious now,” the Washington Post wrote in an editorial. “The House’s governing coalition has been cemented. It consists of nearly every Democrat and about half of Republicans.” 

On one level, the battle against the bullies has been about aid to Ukraine and, in a wider sense, America’s role in the world. Sen. J.D. Vance, the freshman from Ohio who shares Trump’s isolation ideology and yearns to be his running mate, argues: “Our voters want us to put America first. And we’re seeing a growing number of Republican senators who think Ukraine has nothing to do with that.”

There’s some truth to his assessment. After all, 112 Republican House members opposed aid to Ukraine, but in the Reaganite tradition, “America first” means something very different. It means America is the first to lead, the first to understand its global power and responsibility.

To be sure, American aggression has led to tragic miscalculations in places like Vietnam and Iraq. But intervening in Ukraine to thwart Putin’s imperialistic ambitions is clearly in America’s interest. And Vance, channeling Trump, is flat-out wrong. 

Speaker Mike Johnson, who started out as a skeptic toward Ukraine, played a pivotal role in opposing the ardent appeasers in his own party. While they threatened to depose him — as they did his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy — if he committed the heresy of actually working with Democrats, Johnson defied the bullies and risked his own future by supporting the aid package. 

“History judges us for what we do,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “This is a critical time right now … I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing. … I think providing lethal aid to Ukraine right now is critically important.”

Johnson’s son will enter the Naval Academy this fall, and he added: “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys.”

“This is a historic moment,” said the Post after the House vote. “A de facto bipartisan coalition government has maintained U.S. global credibility.”

The role and importance of that “coalition government” goes beyond the Ukraine vote, however. During the Biden presidency, it has emerged periodically to defy GOP hardliners, raising the debt ceiling and funding the basic operations of government.

Ultra-right-wingers — from the tea party to the Freedom Caucus — have bedeviled Republican leaders for years. Speaker Newt Gingrich denounced them as the “perfectionist caucus” in the late ’90s. His successor, John Boehner, was even blunter, branding them “legislative terrorists.” To Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, they represent the “Taliban wing” of the party.

They existed long before Donald Trump, but he has exploited and amplified the influence of lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who vilified the Ukraine aid package as “a sellout of America.”

Democrats have their own problems with extremists on the left. In the House, 37 members voted against an aid bill for Israel and have propounded deeply damaging ideas like defunding the police and allowing abortion on demand. But they are not quite as rigid — or as dangerous — as Greene and her co-conspirators — cheered on by Trump — who profoundly misunderstand the nature of government. 

This is a vast and diverse country. The only way it can function effectively, particularly in an era of closely divided power, is through accommodation and negotiation. Compromise is not selling out. It’s absolutely essential to a healthy democracy. So is standing up to bullies.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at