December 5, 2023

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In Flip-Flopping on Trump, J.D. Vance Upholds a Bipartisan Tradition

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J.D. Vance, who just wrapped up the Republican nomination for this year’s U.S. Senate race in Ohio, once wrote an extended essay for the Atlantic comparing Donald Trump to heroin.

Given that background, what makes Vance’s win so extraordinary is that he prevailed not despite the Trump Factor but specifically because of it. Vance transitioned to a pro-Trump posture years ago and throughout the race enjoyed the enthusiastic support of billionaire Peter Thiel. But what rocketed the “Hillbilly Elegy” author from third place to first in the polls was Trump’s own endorsement.

This reflects a level of political maturity on Trump’s part that surpasses his reputation — prioritizing movement-building and the construction of a new Thiel-aligned network over petty personal grievance.

It also reflects an underrated but widespread tendency in American politics: flip-flopping.

In his book “Party Position Change in American Politics,” University of Maryland political scientist David Karol shows that, contrary to myth, realignments in the parties’ views do not require that old-timers be replaced by new cohorts of politicians. This does happen from time to time, as when institutionalist Bob Corker of Tennessee retired from his Senate seat to be replaced by MAGA-enthusiast Marsha Blackburn. But a much more common scenario is for politicians to simply change their minds.

Consider that when abortion first became a national political issue, Congress contained Catholic Democrats from the Northeast who followed their church’s opposition to legal abortion. As a young senator, Joe Biden voted in committee for a constitutional amendment that would allow states to opt out of Roe v Wade, consistent with his 1973 statement that the Supreme Court went “too far” with its ruling and a 1974 interview in which he said a woman should not have “sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

By 1982, however, Biden voted against the constitutional amendment he had backed in 1981. By the time of his 1988 presidential run, Democrats had clearly become a pro-choice party, and he had become a pro-choice candidate. This was around the same time that Al Gore discovered his pro-choice convictions, as well, also just in time for a presidential run.

Trump moved in the opposite direction. In a “Meet the Press” interview in 1999, when he was flirting with a presidential run as a centrist independent, he described himself as “very pro-choice.” In the same interview, he also struck a strikingly left-wing (for that time) posture on LGBT issues, saying he favored allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly in the military and that, while he didn’t think the country was ready for same-sex marriage, he personally sympathized with the cause.

Barack Obama, too, when he was a Chicago politician in the late 1990s, backed same-sex marriage equality — only to discover profound religious objections to the idea when he emerged as a national political star in the mid-aughts, and then to rediscover the wisdom of his original view in 2012, just when popular support for gay marriage rose above 50%.

Very often such moves work for the exact same reason that Vance was able to pull off his Trump pivot: Relevant groups agree to vouch for conversions of dubious sincerity.

Abortion-rights groups strengthened their leverage inside the Democratic Party by taking yes for an answer from flip-floppers such as Biden, Gore and former congressional leaders Dick Gephardt and Harry Reid. If activists had insisted on trying to replace pro-life Democrats with true believers, they would have wasted a lot of time on intraparty fights and also would have discouraged conversions. By befriending anyone willing to vote their way without asking too many questions, they sped the party’s change of position. And politicians who agreed to go along got the opportunity to continue their upward ascent and make progress on the issues that mattered most to them.

On the flip side, evangelical organizations’ willingness to work with the not-very-devout Trump struck a lot of people as shallow, opportunistic and unprincipled. But it got them the Supreme Court that they so desperately wanted.

One of Vance’s original criticisms of Trump was that he “never offers details for how these plans will work, because he can’t.” Vance wrote that back in 2015 when the conventional wisdom was that Trump would lose, and Vance was trying to position himself as someone who’d be able to pick up the pieces. As someone who could provide real answers and real solutions where Trump had only “false euphoria” that “makes some feel better for a bit” but “cannot fix what ails that.”

Does he now think the former (and possibly future) president has become a detail-oriented wonk with well-crafted solutions for the problems of small-town America? I’m not a mind-reader but that seems unlikely. The difference is that if you’re a conservative who thinks the pre-Trump Republican Party’s policy approach was to let its constituents down in some key ways, it now looks as if the best path forward is to embrace Trump and volunteer to be the person who tries to come up with some of those plans that he can’t or won’t describe in detail.

There is hypocrisy in this, just as there was hypocrisy in Trump’s adopting socially conservative views once it became clear that the GOP was a better host for his long-held skepticism of trade and immigration. But intellectual rigor and consistency are luxuries not well-suited to practical politics. What ultimately matters for Trump or Biden or Vance or anyone else in the arena is whether they are able to accomplish their goals — not whether they adhered to a consistent line along the way.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Trump Nod Delivers for Ohio Republican: Jonathan Bernstein

• Big Business and Conservatives Face a Divorce: Adrian Wooldridge

• Extremist Ideas Are Not Necessarily Bad Ideas: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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