Bob Vander Plaats, the conservative evangelical kingmaker in Iowa politics, now knows what happens when you hand over your Republican presidential showcase to Tucker Carlson.
Jesus is out. Vladimir V. Putin is in.
Mr. Carlson was tasked with interviewing six Republican presidential hopefuls at the Family Leadership conference in Des Moines on Friday. Consequently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the dominant topic of debate, on a day when Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa used the incident to sign a near-total abortion ban into law.
In the hands of Mr. Carlson, the former Fox News host who was recently fired, Ukraine has become the bad actor in the conflict, not Russia.
The most heated exchange occurred when Mr. Carlson interviewed former Vice President Mike Pence before a packed auditorium at the Des Moines convention center. Mr Pence blamed the Biden administration for being too slow to provide advanced weaponry to Ukraine.
“We promised them 33 Abrams tanks in January. I heard again two weeks ago in Ukraine, they still don’t have them,” Mr. Pence said. “We told them we would train their F-16 pilots, but now they say maybe January.”
Mr. Carlson interjected, to the delight of much of the audience. “Wait, I know you’re running for president, but you’re upset that Ukrainians don’t have enough American tanks?” he asked, in his trademark confrontational style.
For good measure, Mr. Carlson called Ukraine an American “client state,” accused Ukraine’s Jewish leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, of persecuting Christians and strongly suggested that Mr. Pence had been duped, despite evidence to the contrary.
Mr. Penny was not alone. Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, argued that by degrading Russia’s military, American aid to Ukraine makes America stronger and safer.
Mr. Carlson responded with a signature dismissive response.
“Russia’s total body count in the United States is right around zero; I don’t know anyone who has been killed by Russia,” Mr. Carlson said. “I know personally people who have been killed by Mexico,” he said, adding, “Why is Mexico less of a threat than Russia?”
It didn’t go any better for his first target, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who led border security under former President George W. Bush, who found himself making the case to Mr. Carlson that bombing Mexican drug cartels could be problematic because it would be an act of war against friendly neighboring state.
The split in the Republican Party between traditional conservatives who favor the projection of US military power and a new, more isolationist wing that leans towards Russia is nothing new. But the Family Leadership Summit was supposed to be a showcase of Christian values, where social issues like abortion and transgender rights were expected to take center stage.
But by making Mr. Carlson something of a master of ceremonies, Mr. Vander Plaats, the chairman of The Family Boss, which hosted the summit, gave the crowd a wild card. When the spotlight turned to Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, Eric Teetsel, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, praised her as “still willing to take the stage” after the previous appearances.
Mr. Penny had his laments after his appearance. “I’m sorry we didn’t have a lot of time during my time on stage to talk about the progress for life or about things affecting the family,” he said, before adding, “I’m really never surprised by Tucker Carlson .”