What Is J.D. Vance’s Angle?

J.D. Vance was trying to find his groove. I had just shown up at his office last week to interview the Ohio Republican about his first nine months in the Senate, where he has proved curiously hard to pigeonhole. As we sat down, Mr. Vance — at 39, one of the chamber’s youngest members — squirmed in his ornate leather arm chair, complaining that it was uncomfortable. Whoever used it previously, he explained, had created a “giant ass print” that made it a poor fit for him.

Then the senator kicked a foot up on the low coffee table in front of him. This gave me a glorious view of his custom socks: a dark-red background covered with pictures of his 6-year-old son’s face. On the far end of the table was a Lego set of the U.S. Capitol that his wife had bought him on eBay for Father’s Day. With his crisp dark suit, casual manner and personal touches, Mr. Vance suddenly looked right at home. I suspected there was some grand metaphor in all this about the young conservative working to carve out his spot in this world of old leather and hidebound traditions.

I asked what had been his most pleasant discovery about life in the Senate. “I’ve been surprised by how little people hate each other in private,” he offered, positing that much of the acrimony you see from lawmakers was “posturing” for TV. “There’s sort of an inherent falseness to the way that people present on American media,” he said.

This may strike many people as rich coming from Mr. Vance, who is one of the Republican Party’s new breed of in-your-face, culture-warring, Trump-defending MAGA agitators. And indeed, Mr. Vance knows how to throw a partisan punch. Yet in these early days on the job, he has also adopted a somewhat more complicated political model, frequently championing legislation with Democrats, including progressives such as Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin.

Pragmatic bipartisan MAGA troll feels like a dizzying paradoxical line to toe. And it risks feeding into the larger critique of Mr. Vance as a political opportunist. This is, after all, the guy who won attention in the 2016 election cycle as a harsh conservative critic of Mr. Trump, only to undergo a stark MAGA makeover and spend much of his 2022 Senate race sucking up to the former president. “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than J.D. Vance,” Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and former Republican presidential nominee, told his biographer about the party’s 2022 midterm contenders. “It’s like, really? You sell yourself so cheap?”

Mr. Vance is not one to ignore such swipes. “Mitt Romney is one to talk about changing his mind publicly. He’s been on every side of 35 different issues,” he clapped back to Breitbart News.

But there seems to be something going on with Mr. Vance beyond the usual shape-shifting flip-floppery. He contends that his approach is the more honest, hopeful path to getting things done for the conservative grass roots. In his telling, he’s not the cynical operator; his critics are.

In some respects — especially with his defense of Mr. Trump — the freshman senator is transparently full of bull. But when it comes to how to navigate and possibly even make progress in today’s fractious G.O.P., not to mention this dysfunctional Congress, he may well be onto something.

Mr. Vance and I sat down on a morning when Congress was all a dither over a possible government shutdown being driven by a spending fight among House Republicans. While sympathetic to his colleagues’ concerns, Mr. Vance saw the battle as unfocused, unproductive and bad for the party.

“My sense is this shutdown fight will go very poorly for us unless we’re very clear about what we’re asking for,” he told me. With different blocs of Republicans demanding different things, “that’s just going to get confused, and the American people are going to punish us for it.”

He argued that if the conservatives would hunker down and focus, they could get one major concession. “And we should be fighting for that one thing,” he said. What did he think they should prioritize? “If we could get something real on border security, then that would be a deal worth taking.”

Mr. Vance described himself less an ideological revolutionary than a principled pragmatist. He did not come to Washington to blow up the system or overhaul how the Senate operates. He said his outlook was, “There are things I need to get done, and I will do whatever I need to do to do them.”

If this means making common cause with the political enemy now and again, so be it. “I am a populist in a lot of my economic convictions, and so that will lead to opportunities to working with Democrats,” he reasoned.

Mr. Vance’s cross aisle endeavors include teaming up with Ms. Warren to push legislation that would claw back compensation from bank executives who were richly paid even as they were “crashing their banks into a mountain,” as Mr. Vance put it. He has joined forces with Ms. Baldwin on a bill that would ensure that technologies developed with taxpayer money are manufactured in the United States. He is working with Senators Amy Klobuchar and Ron Wyden on a bill to reduce thefts of catalytic converters. And in the coming weeks, his focus will be on pushing through railway safety reform that he and Ohio’s senior senator, Sherrod Brown, introduced in the wake of the derailment disaster in East Palestine. That is the bill about which he was most optimistic. “We have 60 votes in private,” he said.

Even if nothing makes it through this year, Mr. Vance is playing the long game. “Those productive personal relationships are quite valuable because they may not lead to an actual legislative package tomorrow, but they could two years from now,” he said.

Squishy “relationship” talk can be dangerous in today’s G.O.P., even for members of the relatively genteel Senate. Being labeled a RINO — that is, a Republican in Name Only — generally earns one the sort of opprobrium normally reserved for child sex traffickers.

But here’s where his MAGA antics may provide a bit of cover. In his brief time in Washington, the senator has proved himself an eager and a prolific culture warrior. The first bill he introduced — an important moment in any senator’s career — aimed to make English the nation’s official language. In July, after the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action in university admissions, he fired off a letter to the eight Ivy League schools, plus a couple of private colleges in Ohio, warning them to retain any records that might be needed for a Senate investigation of their practices. That same month, he introduced a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors. He even waded into the hysteria last winter over the health risks of gas stoves. This month, he’s out hawking a bill that would ban federal mask mandates for domestic air travel, public transit systems and schools, and bar those institutions from denying service to the maskless.

Perhaps most vitally, Mr. Vance remains steadfast in his support of Mr. Trump. In June, he announced he was putting a hold on all Justice Department nominees in protest of “the unprecedented political prosecution” of Mr. Trump. And he plans to work hard as a surrogate to return the MAGA king to the White House. “I’m thinking about trying to be as active a participant as possible.”

J.D. Vance during a Trump campaign rally last year.Credit…Megan Jelinger/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

His critique of Mr. Trump’s critics can be brutal.

“Trump is extraordinarily clarifying on the right and extra confusing on the left,” he said. The hatred for Trump among progressives is so strong that people cannot see past it to acknowledge the former president’s “good parts,” he contended. While among conservatives, “Trump has this incredible capacity to identify really, who the good people are on the right and who the bad people are on the right.”

Elaborating on the “bad” category, he points to former Representative Liz Cheney and the neoconservative writer Bill Kristol. “They say, ‘Donald Trump is an authoritarian’ — which I think is absurd. ‘Donald Trump is anti-democratic’ — which, again, in my view is absurd. I think they’re hiding their real ideological disagreements,” he argued.

Mr. Vance is entitled to his view, of course. But glibly rejecting stated concerns about Mr. Trump’s anti-democratic inclinations — and characterizing his critics’ reactions as “obsessive” — would strike many as the real absurdity.

Asked specifically about Mr. Trump’s election fraud lies, which Mr. Vance has at times promoted, the senator again shifted into slippery explainer mode. “I think it’s very easy for folks in the press to latch onto the zaniest election fraud or stolen election theories and say, ‘Oh this is totally debunked,’” he said. “But they ignore that there is this very clear set of institutional biases built into the election in 2020 that — from big tech censorship to the way in which financial interests really lined up behind Joe Biden.”

“People aren’t stupid. They see what’s out there,” he said. “Most Republican grass roots voters are not sympathetic to the dumbest version of the election conspiracy. They are sympathetic to the version that is actually largely true.”

Except that, as evidence of what is “actually largely true,” Mr. Vance pointed to a 2021 Time article detailing a bipartisan effort not to advance a particular candidate but to safeguard the electoral system. More important, the “dumbest” version of the stolen election conspiracy is precisely what Mr. Trump and his enablers have been aggressively spreading for years. It is what drove the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, landed many rioters in prison, led to Fox News paying a $787.5 million defamation settlement and prompted grand juries to indict Mr. Trump in federal and state courts. Mr. Vance may want to believe that most Republicans are too smart to buy such lunacy, but he is too smart not to recognize the damage to American democracy being wrought by that lunacy.

As for those who criticize his approach, Mr. Vance saw them as out of sync with voters. The conservative grass roots are “extremely frustrated with Washington not doing anything,” he said. “I think if you are a critic of them — if you are a critic of the way they see the world — you see people who want to blow up the system. Who are just pissed off. And they want fighters.” And not necessarily fighters who are “directed” or strategic in their efforts, he said, so much as just anyone who channels that rage.

By contrast, “if you’re sympathetic to them and you like them,” he continued, you understand that “the problem is not that people don’t bitch enough or complain enough on television.” Rather, it’s that voters are fed up that “nothing changes” even when they “elect successive waves of different people. So I actually think being a bridge builder and getting things done is totally consistent with this idea that people are pissed off at the government as do-nothing.”

When I asked how Mr. Vance defined his political positioning, he abruptly popped out of his chair and hurried over to his desk. He returned with a yellow sticky note on which he drew a large grid. Along the bottom of the paper he scrawled “culture” and on the left side, “commerce.” He started drawing dots as he explained: “I think the Republican Party has tended to be here” — top right quadrant, indicating a mix of strong cultural and pro-business conservatism. He added, “I think the Democratic Party has tended to be here,” pointing to the bottom left quadrant, which in his telling represents a strong liberal take on both. “And I think the majority, certainly the plurality of American voters — and maybe I’m biased because this is my actual view — is somewhere around here,” he said, placing them on the grid to suggest that people are “more conservative on cultural issues but they are not instinctively pro-business.”

Credit…Michelle Cottle

Mr. Vance reminded me that he has always been critical of his party’s pro-business bias. And it is primarily in this space that he is playing nice with Democrats.

Bridge builder. Deal Maker. MAGA maniac. Trump apologist. Call Mr. Vance whatever you want. And if you find it all confused or confusing, don’t fret. That may be part of the point. Mr. Trump’s Republican Party is something of a chaotic mess. Until it figures out where it is headed, a shape-shifting MAGA brawler who quietly works across the aisle on particular issues may be the best this party has to offer.

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