Election 2024

Trump's Veep: Better Burgum Than Vance or Rubio

Sens. J.D. Vance and Marco Rubio—unlike Gov. Doug Burgum—have proven that they will move the GOP away from free market economics.


Next week, the Republican National Convention will choose Donald Trump to be its nominee for the third presidential election cycle in a row. Between then and now, Trump will also choose his vice president. No one can know Trump's mind for certain, but he is believed to have settled on three finalists: Sen. J.D. Vance (R–Ohio), Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.), and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

While the vice presidency is often derided as a relatively unimportant job, there are reasons to think that Trump's choice could have significant ramifications in the future. When Trump does, at long last, exit the political stage, his most recent veep will be a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination in subsequent cycles. Vance, Rubio, and Burgum all share certain similarities—in that they are Republicans who strongly support Trump—but they are also distinct personalities with significant policy differences.

When Ronald Reagan ran the party, he famously used the metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe modern conservatism, with the legs being neoconservatism (on foreign policy), religious conservatism (on social issues), and libertarianism (on economics). This triple alliance continued through the George W. Bush administration, but Trump shattered it when he won the nomination and the presidency in 2016. Neoconservatism, in particular, fell out of fashion with the GOP; Trump also pushed the party to move away from economic libertarianism, at least on trade.

The battle for control of the GOP's ideological direction is still being fought, and Trump's veep and eventual successor could play a decisive role in winning it. (Trump is himself not particularly ideological.) For libertarians who would like to see the Republican Party adopt a more market-friendly platform wherever possible, the vice presidency has some stakes.

It's unfortunate, then, that Trump's seemingly most likely choice—Vance—is also the least libertarian by far.

Vance first came to public attention after publishing Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about his adolescence in Appalachia. The book chronicled the decay of the American Rust Belt and the resulting social instability among the working class, and it helped explain Trump's appeal to blue-collar voters. It is notable, however, that at the time, Vance did not endorse the phenomenon he was describing. In fact, Hillbilly Elegy largely avoids scapegoating market forces and instead asserts that the struggling members of Vance's community were wrong to blame their problems on sinister outsiders.

Unfortunately, avoiding demagoguery is not a winning strategy when seeking higher office. Today, Vance is a committed populist who embraces tariffs and protectionism. He has called for the federal government to break up Google. He has even praised Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan, a Joe Biden appointee waging a one-woman crusade against major tech companies—and indirectly, their customers.

"A lot of my Republican colleagues look at Lina Khan…and they say, 'Well Lina Khan is sort of engaged in some sort of fundamental evil thing," said Vance earlier this year. "And I guess I look at Lina Khan as one of the few people in the Biden administration that I think is doing a pretty good job."

Khan's entire project is empowering federal bureaucrats to gum up the operations of major companies like Amazon for the crime of efficiently and successfully meeting human needs. Vance co-signs this effort.

In truth, Vance is fond of all sorts of progressive economic ideas. Interviewed by Ross Douthat in The New York Times, Vance showed affection for the minimum wage, explicitly rejecting libertarian arguments against it.

"You raise the minimum wage to $20 an hour, and you will sometimes hear libertarians say this is a bad thing," said Vance. "'Well, isn't McDonald's just going to replace some of the workers with kiosks?' That's a good thing, because then the workers who are still there are going to make higher wages."

Vance went on to argue that cheap immigrant labor outcompeting American workers was in fact bad and ought to be prevented by the federal government. That is Vance's ideology in a nutshell: If American workers lose their jobs because government interference sped up the process of automation, oh well. But if these same workers lose out due to free market competition, the feds should work to prevent it.

Vance is arguably more committed to anti-libertarian ideas than is Trump himself. Trump's rhetoric is often quite at odds with his actual policies, and he is capable of dramatic policy shifts—like supporting a ban on TikTok and then dramatically backpedaling. When Trump's former secretary of defense raised the idea of mandatory national military service, Trump called it a "ridiculous idea." Vance has said he is in support of some version of the proposal, however. If Vance becomes the vice president, he will be well-positioned to hone Trump's populist instincts and bring the policy in line with the rhetoric.

Rubio, by contrast, is not a very sincere populist. He entered the Senate in 2011 as part of the Tea Party wave; his instincts at the time were traditionally Republican, but he emphasized some limited government themes, like reining in spending and opposing congressional earmarks. He also supported immigration reform and wanted to design a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants living within the United States. Unlike other prominent Republicans identified with the Tea Party such as Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), Rubio remained reflexively hawkish on foreign policy. When he ran for president in 2016, he was arguably the candidate most similar to former President George W. Bush—quite a feat, given that Jeb Bush was also in the race.

One thing Rubio has in common with Vance is that both politicians completely changed their tune with respect to Trump once his conquest of the Republican Party was complete. Rubio once called Trump a "con artist" and "the most vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency." Now he routinely defends Trump at all costs, even comparing the criminal proceedings against Trump to "show trials" of the likes of Communist Cuba.

Rubio's incoherent defenses of Trump have also caused the senator to embrace bad policies he once opposed. As Reason's Eric Boehm has noted, Rubio previously understood that raising tariffs on China would punish consumers in the U.S., the people buying the goods in question. He quite succinctly explained this to Trump during the Republican presidential primary debates in 2016. Eight years later, Rubio is not only defending tariffs on China—he agrees with Trump's plan to expand them.

All that said, Rubio comes across as more ideologically flexible than Vance. He has betrayed libertarian economic ideas because the current trajectory of the Republican Party is away from this philosophy. If that were to change, one suspects that Rubio would too.

This means that Burgum is the least bad choice for vice president, almost by default. The North Dakota governor has not been on the national political scene for nearly as much time as Vance or Rubio, instead emerging last year as an unlikely Republican presidential candidate during the primaries. He did not particularly distinguish himself during the debates, though he did attract some positive attention for displaying his pocket Constitution.

According to a largely sympathetic evaluation of his tenure in office, Burgum has governed as a traditional conservative: cutting taxes, improving the business climate in the state, supporting the Second Amendment, and so on. He signed a very restrictive ban on abortion, which may be a nonstarter for Trump, who has correctly surmised that this issue is currently the biggest barrier to a second Trump term. Burgum did, however, take the position that abortion is an issue for the states and should not be decided by the federal government.

Before entering politics, he was a self-made businessman who started his own software company and sold it to Microsoft for $1 billion in 2001. While success in the business world is no guarantee of fealty to libertarian economics—Vance was a venture capitalist, after all—it is somewhat encouraging. Political candidates invariably end up disappointing libertarians, but Burgum's record as a governor suggests that he is less likely to abandon basic free market principles at the drop of a hat.

By contrast, Vance and Rubio have already proven that they are happy to do so.

Unfortunately, none of the candidates under consideration for Trump's veep slot are particularly libertarian. Vance and Rubio, though, are not just unlibertarian—they have moved decisively in an anti-libertarian direction on economic issues where a generic Republican might be plausibly expected to at least casually align with liberty. That's ample reason to hope Trump excludes them from the ticket.