Commentary

Rosendale’s vote is a bad look for Montana

March 13, 2022 7:20 am

Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale before going on a broadcast on Newsmax on March 3, 2022 (Photo credit via Rep. Matt Rosendale).

For many of his constituents in Montana, our lone congressional representative, Matt Rosendale’s “no” vote on a resolution to support the Ukrainians in their struggle against the Russians is a true head scratcher. 

The vote was purely symbolic, requiring no appropriations or obligating any American military commitment now or in the future; it merely indicated to the Ukrainian government and its people that we Americans are, at least in spirit, behind their gallant struggle against naked aggression and the preservation of their country.  The summary of the resolution stated that Congress “demands an immediate cease-fire and the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukrainian territory” and expresses unequivocal support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  It also backs the continued use of sanctions to “fully isolate the Putin regime economically and urges the United States and its allies and partners to deliver additional and immediate defensive security assistance to Ukraine.”   The resolution passed 426-3. 

In a rare—and refreshing—display of bipartisanship 206 of Rosendale’s fellow Republicans supported the declaration, including habitual “nyetskis” and grandstanders such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Jim Jordan.  Rosendale’s primary reason for voting no is that he won’t support anything that doesn’t put “America first” such as stopping the “invasion of illegal aliens flooding our southern border,” or tackling the opioid crisis.  

Apparently taking a principled stand, along with 206 of his GOP colleagues in the House and all 220 Democrats, along with dozens of our historic allies around the world, against the unprovoked murderous brutality that Russia has unleashed on its democratic neighbor of Ukraine isn’t sufficiently putting America first and thus worthy of his support, or, by extension of our support as the Montanans he represents in Congress.

Rosendale’s stance puts him in rarefied historical company with other Montana isolationist politicians of days past. 

No one who has taken a Montana history class gets out of it without learning about the first vote cast by a woman in Congress, our own Jeanette Rankin. She joined with 49 others in the House in early April 1917 to vote “no” against our entry into what then was simply termed as the “Great War.”  She is even more notable, (though most of Montana at the time considered her “notorious”) for her no vote, in that case the only no vote in a joint session of Congress, she cast the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.  

Despite the evidence, despite the circumstances of a brazen sneak attack against our American fleet with the resulting loss of over 2,400 American lives, and no matter how her constituents felt about the issue, she simply could not bring herself to vote for a declaration of war.  Montanans were furious with her at the time.  And though the winds of time have softened her legacy, for years “Rankin” wasn’t a name one brought up at the holiday table with veterans in attendance.

Then there was Rankin’s contemporary in the other chamber, the Butte lawyer who, during his 20-plus year career became a powerful force in the U.S. Senate, Burton K. Wheeler.  By the late 1930s Wheeler broke with the Roosevelt administration over foreign aid to the British in their struggle with Nazi Germany.  He soon became an ardent defender—and high-profile speaker—for the “America First Committee,” an organization that at its best pledged strengthened American homeland defense over condemning Hitler’s European aggression; at its worst it was openly anti-Semitic and hostile to American efforts to aid the British in their own valiant and solitary struggle against the Nazi juggernaut (after France had fallen in the spring of 1940).  Attempting to explain his—ultimately futile–opposition to FDR’s 1940 Lend-Lease Act that provided humanitarian and military aid to the British, French, and later the Soviets in their struggle against the Nazis, Wheeler felt the Act ultimately would “plow under every fourth American boy.” 

For his part, Roosevelt considered Wheeler’s statement, coming from a liberal Democrat and a member of the president’s own party, as “the rottenest thing that has been said in public life in my generation.” 

Privately, FDR believed Wheeler’s language and actions were border-line treasonous.  After Pearl Harbor, Wheeler begrudgingly changed his tune, but his tacit pre-war support for Nazi Germany and his later opposition to the United States joining the United Nations at the end of the war, would dog him the rest of his career.  In 1946 he was defeated for re-nomination here in Montana largely because of his pre-war isolationism.

Unlike Jeanette Rankin’s famous (or at the time “infamous”) lone “no” vote to enter World War II, Rosendale was joined by two other representatives in his vote last week:  Thomas Massie from Kentucky who recently made headlines by refusing to vote for anti-lynching legislation, and the other, Paul Gosar from Arizona, whose views are so erratic and increasingly contemptible even his own siblings have disowned him. They, too, voted no.  

While no one has conducted any formal (or even informal) poll, my suspicions are that most Montanans, regardless of political leanings, are shocked and appalled by Russia’s actions and want us to support Ukraine, if even just symbolically at this point.  Instead of representing his constituents—and living up to his title as “Representative”—Rosendale has instead chosen to represent whom exactly?  It’s an unnecessarily bad look for the state, even for one that’s had more than its share of bad looks in the past.

Keith Edgerton teaches Montana History at Montana State University-Billings where he also serves as the chairman of the history department.

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