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Jun 16, 2023, 12:00pm EDT
politics

J.D. Vance, the Senate’s MAGA dealmaker

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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The Scene

On Tuesday morning, Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance rolled out the latest of his bipartisan bills — a team-up with Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin that would require tech developed by taxpayer dollars to be built in America.

Hours later, Vance announced that he’d slow down nearly all Department of Justice confirmations to protest the prosecution of Donald Trump, who he said was “merely the latest victim” of an administration “that cares more about politics than law enforcement.”

Six months into his Senate career, Vance has surprised Democrats with his eagerness to co-sponsor legislation and sell it to his conservative base. In an interview with SemaforVance said he was working to harmonize “the very justified MAGA impulse that conservatives never fight” with the “middle of the road impulse that this town isn’t doing anything.”

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The first real test of the theory could come within weeks, when a railway safety bill, developed with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown after the February derailment in East Palestine, reaches the Senate floor.

“We’ve managed to accomplish some things — or, at the least, begin the process of accomplishing some things — while simultaneously making voters that sent me here happy,” said Vance.

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David’s view

Vance’s 2022 Senate campaign was so alienating to progressives, and so helped by Donald Trump’s intervention, that Democrats were caught off guard by his eagerness to co-sponsor legislation.

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“We hear from the same people. We’re working on this together. We have very few differences on it, almost none,” said Brown, Vance’s co-sponsor on rail safety. “His most important job, in my opinion, is to deliver 15 or so Republicans here.”

That job requires him to speak MAGA in the conservative media world, where Vance has been an eager attack dog. His collaboration with Brown began even after he’d taken a prominent role bashing President Biden’s response to the rail disaster and complaining that the administration was “talking about how we have too many white-male construction workers” instead of fixing it.

The railway safety bill has gotten most of the attention; it’s got the best and earliest chance of passage. But Vance has also joined forces with Minnesota Sen. Amy Kobuchar on preventing catalytic converter theft; with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on getting guardsmen and reservists earlier access to healthcare; with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly on speeding up manufacturing starts in rural areas; and with Warren, again, on clawing back executive compensation when banks fail.

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“We actually want to make change,” Warren told Politico earlier this month, explaining the collaboration with Vance.

The presidential campaign so far — its race to the right, its all-absorbing debates about Trump — hasn’t impacted any of this. Senators who’ve worked with Vance told Semafor that his pro-Trump nominee blockade wasn’t an impediment to working with him.

“When people go through the weekly, monthly work we’ve got to do here, we learn to work together,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

Negative coverage of what Vance is trying to do, from the left, wasn’t impacting it either. Brown pushed back against a Lever News story that linked the American Chemistry Council’s support for the bill to its lobbying to push back the timeline for requiring safer tank cars. “It’s a little bit like MPG standards in cars,” Brown said. “As much as I wanted to accelerate that, you can’t do it that quickly.”

But Vance’s long-term project is building a more populist right, led in the short term by Trump, and using the state’s power in ways that sometimes overlap with the progressive movement. The left wants universal healthcare; he wants free healthcare for mothers and babies.

“We have to figure out a way to — for political reasons — convince people that we’re pro-life not just until the moment the baby’s born, and — for moral reasons — actually have to make it easier to have children and raise families in this country,” Vance said. That didn’t mean the “back-door single-payer” that progressives might want. The compromise could come through currently existing insurance: “If you’re required to provide contraception, you should be required to provide healthcare to the people who decide to have the kid.”

It’s an open question how many votes Vance can deliver from his own side for his proposals — his work on the rail bill has drawn dismissive coverage in National Review and opposition from Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump himself has never been too drilled in on policy specifics and the budget-slashing House Freedom Caucus is ascendant again (that’s less of an impediment, said Vance, than the “Chamber of Commerce” wing of the party). Skeptics still question if Vance’s brand of conservatism is a passing quirk rather than a preview of what’s to come.

“Maybe this model doesn’t work for six years,” Vance said. “But for six months, the model of fighting for conservative principles while working to get some things done haven’t been in tension. They’ve actually been in harmony.”

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Know More

What happens to all of this if Trump returns to the White House? Vance said he’d studied why the former president couldn’t bring Democrats on board with an infrastructure bill, a longtime Trump priority that Biden ended up delivering instead.

One reason was that “too many Republicans, especially the Chamber of Commerce types, were actively aligned against Trump’s very good populist instincts.” The other was that Democrats didn’t start with their own plan to get the ball rolling.

That was before Jan. 6, before Trump campaigned against Republicans who’d voted to impeach him, and before he promised political and legal “retribution” against the people who’d crossed him. What would happen to the new populist project under those conditions?

“I think there’s probably a period where [Democrats] flip the hell out and try to do everything — legislatively, legally, administratively — to just slow down the Trump administration,” Vance said. “But I think, over time, that wanes, and they actually get with the program to do their job.”

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Room for Disagreement

Zachary D. Carter, a left-leaning author and think tanker, said that there was plenty of good in Vance’s bipartisan work, but that Democrats didn’t really need a MAGA alliance to make this happen.

“From a progressive, left-populist perspective, it’s not clear what the right brings to the project,” said Carter. “Biden’s been good on the economy. So if the coalitional calculus on the right is that you’ve got to side with them on immigration and authoritarianism, it’s not worth it.”

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Notable

  • In N+1, Gabriel Winant assesses Vance’s career as a sham: “All bewilderment, joylessness, and thoughtless cruelty caked over with some of the cheapest mythology on the market.”
  • The GOP depends on corporate PACs less than it used to, Brody Mullins writes in the Wall Street Journal. It’s another trend creating space for Vance’s strategy.
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