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Democrats link Ukraine’s democracy struggle to one closer to home

Leaders look to use Putin’s behavior to boost efforts to bolster free and fair elections in the U.S. as some in both parties see an opening to discredit Trump.

WASHINGTON — Top Democrats are drawing parallels between the existential fight for democracy in Ukraine and the struggle to protect American democracy, citing the war to reaffirm their desire for new guardrails around institutions like free and fair elections.

“I’m hoping that seeing the Ukrainians come under attack because they’re a democracy and defend their country so bravely because they believe in democracy increases faith in ours here at home,” Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, said in an interview. “I feel very strongly that we’ve had, really, an unprecedented period of questioning our own small-d democratic values and, culminating in January 6, an attempt to overthrow a presidential election here.

“The best thing we can do for the world is to present an example of a functioning democracy at a time when, around the world, autocracies are on the rise and are literally attacking democracies like in Ukraine,” Allred said, suggesting that the death and destruction inflicted by Russian leader Vladimir Putin will give pause to Americans who may want to "put our faith in a strongman."

Before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s address Wednesday to Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the people of his country "are fighting for their democracy and our democracy,” adding, “They’re fighting for democracy writ large.”

“We have to save our own democracy, which is under assault in our country,” she told reporters last Friday at a caucus retreat in Philadelphia. “And at the same time, we can honor our responsibilities to peace around the world — and helping all we can.”

The U.S. and other Western countries say that if authoritarianism prevails in Eastern Europe, it can spread elsewhere. Leading Democrats also argue that American democracy is under siege by elements of the Republican Party that are taking cues from former President Donald Trump to undermine democracy — by promoting phony claims about a stolen election, using their power to limit ballot access in numerous states and wielding the Senate filibuster to block federal voting rights legislation.

Image: U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addresses U.S Congress at the Capitol on March 16, 2022.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addresses Congress at the Capitol on Wednesday.Drew Angerer / Pool via Reuters

That argument is backed by more than 100 scholars, who expressed “growing alarm” in a letter in June that “our entire democracy is now at risk,” pleading with Congress to pass laws to protect voting rights and election integrity. Nine months later, as Putin’s war raged in Ukraine, Trump continued his baseless claims about the 2020 election and insisted Thursday that his defeat in the battleground state of Wisconsin should be overturned.

“I cannot tolerate those who undermine our democracy when they will not support voting rights,” Pelosi told SiriusXM host Joe Madison this month. “But we cannot disagree as to whether we are a democracy for all Americans and that we are not making it harder for people of color, people in certain neighborhoods and the rest to vote.”

'Democracy over autocracy, light over shadows'

Republicans say there's no connection.

“They’re in a totally different spectrum of what it means to fight for freedom than we are,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in an interview. “We should be supportive of them and not minimize what they’re doing by suggesting that the fight over an election bill somewhere is the same as Ukrainians giving their lives for the level of freedom they hope to have.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said Ukraine is "fighting for its existence today" as the U.S. did in 1776. "That is a reference which I think we should all agree on."

President Joe Biden has also made connections, albeit obliquely, taking caution not to suggest that Americans face the same problems as Ukrainians who are being bombarded daily by Russian missiles. In his State of the Union speech this month, he portrayed the war in Ukraine as a “battle between democracy and autocracy.”

It was the same frame he used to describe the political battle over voting rights in the U.S.

“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice?” Biden asked in Atlanta in January. “I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote, our democracy, against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic.”

The two bills he was pushing for — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — would impose broad guarantees of ballot access across the country and make it harder for states with histories of discrimination to change voting laws. They passed the House but fell short of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, facing unanimous opposition from Republicans who said the federal government should leave election laws to states.

Biden has said he decided to run for president after having watched Trump partly defend neo-Nazis carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, calling him a threat to the American identity. Trump has maintained broad and passionate support among Republican voters despite his defeat, although his influence over the party is being tested anew through his warm words for Putin.

Trump's critics in both parties see the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to discredit his style of politics, particularly after he complimented Putin for a "very savvy" and "genius" execution of the war in Ukraine. Former Vice President Mike Pence, who refused to go along with Trump's push to overturn the 2020 election, said recently that there's "no room in this party for apologists for Putin."

Democrats say they hope the war quashes strongman sympathies at home.

“There is absolutely a renaissance of interest in democracy,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in an interview. “We are watching these heroes fight like hell and die for democracy. And Republicans and Democrats are standing up to protect Ukrainian democracy. … There are some pretty low-cost things we can do right now to protect our own democracy.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., his party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, said: “I do think there are parallels. We sometimes take our own democracy for granted and won’t protect it as we should.”