Just three days: That’s how long it took for Republicans to adopt a new orthodoxy on how the Biden administration should respond to Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence in Gaza.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went first.
“I don’t know what Biden’s going to do, but we cannot accept people from Gaza into this country as refugees,” DeSantis said in Iowa on Saturday, establishing a red line that the other frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination would soon adopt.
As many as 2 million civilians are without food, water, and shelter in Gaza as Israel prepares to invade the densely populated region in response to a deadly Hamas terrorist attack earlier this month. While the White House has backed Israel from the start, the administration has also pressed powers in the region to open a humanitarian corridor to escape the bloodshed.
The final destination of those refugees, Republicans now say, should not be the United States. But they did not slam the door in unison. In a split screen on Sunday, DeSantis and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley seemed to differ sharply on how the United States ought to respond. Former President Trump, meanwhile, remained silent.
DeSantis reiterated his red line on refugees during an interview with “Face the Nation,” telling Margaret Brennan of CBS that “those Gaza refugees, Palestinian Arabs, should go to Arab countries. The U.S. should not be absorbing any of those.” And he reiterated his warning that, while “not everyone is a member of Hamas,” the culture in Gaza is so “toxic” that welcoming large numbers of refugees “would increase antisemitism” and “anti-Americanism” in the United States.
Haley rejected that broad characterization during a CNN interview Sunday, telling Jake Tapper that a large portion of Palestinians bristle under Hamas in Gaza. “There are so many of these people who want to be free from this terrorist rule. They want to be free from all of that,” she said before adding that Americans have always been sympathetic to the idea “that you can separate civilians from terrorists.”
The former ambassador also called on Middle Eastern countries to step up and provide for Palestinians desperate to avoid the crossfire. “Where are the Arab countries? Where are they?” Haley asked. “Where is Qatar? Where is Lebanon? Where is Jordan? Where is Egypt? Do you know we give Egypt over a billion dollars a year? Why aren’t they opening the gates? Why aren’t they taking the Palestinians?”
When asked specifically if Haley believed that the United States should welcome refugees fleeing the crisis, a spokesman for Haley told RealClearPolitics on Monday that the ambassador “opposes the U.S. taking in Gazans” and that Haley believes “Hamas-supporting countries like Iran, Qatar, and Turkey should take any refugees.”
As poll numbers tighten in the race to be positioned as Trump’s possible, supporters of the Florida governor seized on that statement as evidence Haley had flip-flopped on the question. Hours later, when Trump said in Iowa that “we aren’t bringing in anyone from Gaza,” the DeSantis campaign suggested that the former president was plagiarizing DeSantis.
“Trump literally needs a teleprompter in order to finally catch up with a position DeSantis took three days ago on Gaza refugees,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo told RCP.
During a campaign stop in Iowa, Trump promised to update and enforce his travel ban to include anyone from Gaza. He went further, vowing to deny entry into the United States to anyone who adhered to “anti-American” ideologies. “If you empathize with radical Islamic terrorists and extremists, you’re disqualified,” he said. “If you want to abolish the state of Israel, you’re disqualified.”
Trump allies are fond of accusing DeSantis of copying and pasting the former president whenever the governor espouses policies adopted during the previous administration. This time, DeSantis supporters argue it is the other way around.
Ken Cuccinelli, who served as Trump’s deputy Homeland Security secretary, told RCP that DeSantis had become “the standard-bearer for standing with Israel and protecting American citizens.”
An immigration hawk and chairman of the pro-DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, Cuccinelli said that DeSantis “took the position to ban importing Gaza’s population without hesitation while everyone else is now following his lead.”
First-time candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who is mired in fourth place in the polls, also added his voice to the emerging chorus of GOP voices. “Vivek would not allow refugees from Gaza into the U.S.,” a Ramaswamy spokeswoman told RCP. Instead, the businessman would look to help facilitate “their emigration to other countries, but this is not an issue where we should risk U.S. security or trade off the well-being of Americans here in the homeland.”
Support for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack has been bipartisan and immediate. Conservative consensus on the refugee question took time to evolve.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Sunday, Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism analyst for the Treasury Department and a senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense for Democracies, argued that the responsibility for sheltering refugees should fall on “Hamas’ enablers,” such as Iran, Turkey, and Qatar.
Some Democrats, like New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, have called on the Biden administration to welcome refugees. “Fifty percent of the population in Gaza are children. The international community as well as the United States should be prepared to welcome refugees from Palestine while being very careful to vet and not allow members of Hamas,” the progressive “Squad” member said.
Populist conservatives such as political operative Ryan James Girdusky condemned that idea over the weekend and see the Republican rejection of those calls as part of a larger GOP evolution.
“For decades, Republicans have been begging politicians to pump the breaks on immigration, but refugees especially,” Girdusky told RCP before arguing that welcoming refugees from Gaza would be tantamount to “importing antisemitism and intolerance.”
“Their ideology does not change because they cross national borders. That’s not to mention the genuine fear that terrorists can enter as refugees, which has happened a few times in the past,” the author of the National Populist Newsletter added. “Republican candidates who want to expand refugee status to Palestinians are out of touch with their voters.”
The conflict in the Middle East comes at a moment when Republicans are increasingly divided on the role the United States ought to take on the world stage. And while there is widespread support for Israel among the GOP, many in the 2024 field have grown critical of military aid for Ukraine. Former Vice President Mike Pence said over the weekend that when you have “leaders in the Republican Party signaling retreat on the world stage,” enemies are more likely to attack U.S. allies.
He pointed specifically at “voices of appeasement like Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis that I believe have run contrary to the tradition in our party that America is the leader of the free world.”
For his part, DeSantis ended the weekend at Tampa International Airport. The governor signed an executive order earlier last week directing Florida’s Department of Emergency Management to begin logistical and evacuation efforts of Floridians stuck in Israel after commercial airlines began canceling flights, leaving U.S. citizens stranded in the region. On Sunday evening, nearly 300 Americans returned stateside on a jetliner chartered by the state of Florida with more scheduled in the coming days.
“I am proud of how quickly we have been able to activate resources and do what the federal government could not – get Floridians and other Americans back home,” the governor said in a statement.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.