Talking Points

J.D. Vance's spineless 'common good conservatism'

Back in 2019, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance gave a speech describing his hopes that the GOP would turn away from economic libertarianism and small-government orthodoxy to become a "pro-worker, pro-family" party. Conservatives should stop slavishly serving big corporations, he suggested, and focus on making it easier for Americans to get a decent job, have kids, and live rewarding lives.

"If your American dream is to be a good dad or to be a good husband, a good mom or a good wife, that is the American dream that seems to be disappearing even in the wake of a solid economy," Vance said. "Because for the past 20 or 30 years, we've had booms and busts, we've had recessions and good times in the business cycle, but the very consistent trend is that people in the middle of the country have not done well economically, and more importantly, they haven't done well socially either."

Some progressives might approve of that diagnosis. But Vance deliberately left the policy particulars out of his talk. "We still need to figure out a lot of the details," he said. Three years later, though, Vance is a Republican candidate for one of Ohio's U.S. Senate seats — those details matter now. So how's his high-minded rhetoric working out in practice?

Not so great. On Monday, his campaign's internal polling leaked to the media — a brutal 98-page PowerPoint presentation that showed Vance (despite running a relentlessly "own the libs" campaign) is losing ground in the GOP primary because voters don't perceive him as being Trumpy enough. The pollster's recommendation: Vance should come out strong with a lot of anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner proposals.

Cut federal aid for "sanctuary cities." Make those city officials liable for harms created by migrants. Raise taxes on immigrants who send money back to families in their home countries. Ban Chinese nationals from getting visas that let them work in American universities. Complete Trump's border wall. Of the 18 proposals listed, only one — making healthcare expenses tax deductible for middle-class families — was directly aimed at making life easier for U.S. workers. It didn't poll particularly well with Ohio GOP voters.

Vance appears to be listening. On Tuesday morning he tweeted a video, apparently of an immigrant in mental distress, claiming that "border patrol needs to hire an exorcist."

The emerging "common good conservatism" has some appealing aspects. (I wrote favorably about reviving "blue laws" just a few weeks ago.) But there's nothing remotely fresh or different about blaming immigrants and cities for America's problems. Once you get past the high-minded, worker-friendly rhetoric, the new conservatism is often just the same old right-wingism. If J.D. Vance's polling is any indication, that's exactly what Republican voters want.