Opinion | Who’s the least bad choice to be Trump’s VP? (2024)

Conventional wisdom holds that vice presidents don’t matter much, either in elections, because voters choose based on the top of the ticket, or in practice, because they have few assigned duties. But Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala D. Harris in 2020 is shaping up to be a momentous decision now that the president might have to leave the race following his disastrous debate performance. So, too, will former president Donald Trump’s soon-to-be-announced choice of a running mate be significant.

Trump is now — much as it pains me to say it — the favorite to win in November. Assuming that, if elected, he respects the Constitution’s two-term limit (admittedly a big “if”), whomever he selects as his vice president will be the likely front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2028. Trump’s No. 2 could thereby determine whether the GOP will double down on MAGA extremism or return to more mainstream conservatism.

The choice will be particularly significant in foreign policy, where the president has the greatest discretion and where there is so much disagreement between MAGA isolationists like Trump and traditional Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who champion U.S. international leadership.

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Trump could always surprise, but the three finalists to be his No. 2 are said to be Sen. J.D. Vance (Ohio), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Gov. Doug Burgum (N.D.). All three are born-again Trumpkins who, in the past, were bitterly critical of the man they now seek to serve. (Vance once said Trump could be “America’s Hitler,” Rubio called him a “con artist,” and Burgum said he would never do business with him, because “you’re judged by the company you keep.”) But, although united in hypocrisy, the three men are separated by their policy views — particularly on foreign affairs.

For U.S. allies worried about the future of American foreign policy should Trump return to office (and most of them are), Vance would be the worst possible choice. Rubio and Burgum would be more reassuring selections. To be sure, all three men mouth similar MAGA pieties, but Rubio and Burgum don’t sound as if they mean it. Vance, by contrast, sounds like a true believer with the zeal of a convert.

A long Politico story in March on Vance’s evolving views was headlined: “Is There Something More Radical Than MAGA? J.D. Vance Is Dreaming It.” The article went on to note: “Unlike Trump’s more conventional Republican followers, Vance’s New Right cohort see Trump as merely the first step in a broader populist-nationalist revolution that is already reshaping the American right — and, if they get their way, that will soon reshape America as a whole.”

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Vance reinforced those concerns on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” in May, when he praised Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban — a hero of the authoritarian right — for having made “some smart decisions” that Americans “could learn from.” He was referring to Orban’s assault on academic freedom, which included forcing the respected Central European University, founded by George Soros, out of Hungary.

During his short time in the Senate, Vance has been a leader in opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine. “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” he told Stephen K. Bannon in 2022. In a May speech to the Quincy Institute, an isolationist think tank, Vance said, “I do not think that it is in America’s interest to continue to fund an effectively never-ending war in Ukraine.” He was careful, in that speech, to insist that he still favors support for Israel because it, unlike Ukraine, is “fundamentally self-sufficient.” (Israel has been the biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since 1946.) But some supporters of Israel doubt the Jewish state can count on an isolationist like Vance.

Vance made clear in his Quincy Institute speech that he wants U.S. foreign policy to focus on defending Christianity, not democracy. “A big part of the reason why Americans care about Israel,” he said, “is because we are still the largest Christian-majority country in the world, which means that a majority of citizens of this country think that their savior … was born, died and resurrected in that narrow little strip of territory off the Mediterranean.”

Vance then went on a rant blaming “neoconservatives” (often used as a synonym for Jewish conservatives) for Islamic State attacks on Christian communities in the Middle East. “Neoconservative foreign policy keeps on leading to the genocide of Christians,” he said, preposterously. Vance made clear, in case anyone was in doubt, that his foreign policy views are far removed from those of McConnell — “nearly every foreign policy position he’s held has actually been wrong.”

Rubio and Burgum are much more traditional — and hence less alarming — in their foreign policy views, notwithstanding their mental gyrations to please the MAGA base.

When Rubio entered the Senate in 2011, he was known as an articulate internationalist, a champion of democracy promotion and a supporter of immigration reform who went on to negotiate a compromise bill that could have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants. Those were the reasons I served as a foreign policy adviser to his 2016 campaign. How far Rubio has come: This year, he voted against aid to Ukraine on the grounds that it wasn’t paired with measures to close the U.S. southern border. Of course, Senate Republicans and Democrats did negotiate a tough border bill, but Rubio voted against it, apparently because Trump wanted to preserve immigration as a campaign issue.

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The good news is that Rubio’s Ukraine vote appears to have been merely an act of contemptible political expediency rather than a conversion to isolationism. He is a well-respected member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees who has called out “Russian meddling” in the 2016 election (a position at odds with Trump, who calls Russian interference a “hoax”).

Moreover, Rubio still advocates a fairly interventionist U.S. foreign policy based on championing freedom, particularly in Latin American nations such as Cuba and Venezuela. Speaking to the International Republican Institute in May, Rubio argued for opposing “the challenges to freedom and democracy” that emanate from “China and Russia and North Korea and Iran” — all countries that are trying to create “an alternative to the U.S.-led international order.” The implication is that Rubio, unlike Vance, thinks the U.S.-led order is worth defending.

Burgum, as a governor, has a thinner track record on foreign policy than Vance or Rubio, but what he has said has been reassuring. In an October speech to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, during his short-lived presidential campaign last year, Burgum called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “thug” and argued that U.S. aid to Ukraine is “the bargain of the century.” He rejected arguments, made by the likes of Vance and Rubio, that the United States can’t protect its border and help Ukraine at the same time, calling the position “a simplistic … false trade-off.” He also issued a rousing call to stand behind NATO, an alliance that Trump never gets tired of trashing. “If Putin attacks, we’re all going to band together and fight back,” Burgum vowed. “That’s why NATO’s been around since 1949.”

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In closing, Burgum invoked Ronald Reagan’s vision of America as a shining city on a hill — very different from Trump’s vision of America as an apocalyptic hellscape — and said: “So, to defeat our adversaries — all of which don’t believe in freedom; they believe in authoritarianism — we must have a leader who understands the power of free societies and free markets.”

Let us hope that Burgum would continue to support “the power of free societies and free markets” if he is chosen as Trump’s vice president. Even Rubio, despite his appalling opportunism, might return to his conservative roots if freed of the need to ingratiate himself with Trump. Of the three vice-presidential front-runners, only Vance is likely to take the Republican Party — and the country — in an even more extremist direction after Trump eventually leaves the scene.

Opinion | Who’s the least bad choice to be Trump’s VP? (2024)
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