A US senator about to be replaced by a MAGA stalwart makes national security hope look like fantasy

(Originally published here in the South China Morning Post on May 10, 2022.)

US President Joe Biden’s appearance at an Ohio manufacturer of metal alloy parts last week with Republican Senator Rob Portman offered hope for American politics – or was it fantasy?

The evolution of American political discourse during the past decade would seem to doom the long-term prospects for cooperation between the country’s two political parties on urgent problems. Watching the two men shake hands, share a stage and talk about a common cause was kind of like looking at photos from the last big holiday you had before Covid-19 hit.

But there Portman was on the floor of a sprawling factory in a state that is likely to see Donald Trump-endorsed candidate JD Vance assume Portman’s seat after this year’s midterm elections. He was there to tout an initiative the White House hopes will help fight inflation, spread innovation throughout the land and reverse the decades-long transfer of economic might from the United States to China.

JD Vance is among Republicans trying to downplay Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, part of the alignment between Donald Trump’s base and ultranationalist populists.

The plan, which depends on the voluntary participation of GE Aviation and a handful of other aerospace giants and defence contractors, envisions a domestic manufacturing revolution based on 3D printing technology. In another move aimed at countering China’s manufacturing prowess, the larger companies are committing to help smaller US suppliers adopt the technology to keep more of their supply chains in the US.

On paper, at least, it sounds better than Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which will depend on governments whose trust in Washington is understandably tenuous. It will be harder for GE Aviation and the other companies involved to walk away from commitments to Biden’s cause than for politicians in Jakarta and New Delhi.

Portman’s participation in the plan launched on the floor of United Performance Metals’ factory in Hamilton, Ohio, shows that some within the Republican Party are more interested in creating new policies than undermining and overturning everything that came before them.

Let’s leave it to the economists and management consultants to determine how feasible Biden’s manufacturing plan is and hope for his sake that it gets higher marks than the IPEF, which came in for blunt criticism from a couple of prominent Japanese lawmakers last week.

By encouraging more domestic manufacturing, Biden’s plan is more in line with what Republicans would have endorsed before the party’s hard turn away from free trade and a rules-based global order.

When it comes to his efforts to right the wrongs of China’s trade practices, Trump – who accelerated this shift – will be best known for a trade war that the Peterson Institute for International Economics called a “historic” failure.

The odds are that Vance will win Portman’s seat in the US midterm elections. If that happens, Biden will lose at least one Republican senator’s support for his manufacturing plan. Vance, a former venture capitalist whose primary campaign turned around after he disavowed his former criticism of Trump, recently called Biden a “crazy fake president”.

In another indication of the great ideological alignment between the Republican Party’s voter base, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Vance also said this on Steve Bannon’s ultranationalist podcast shortly before Russia invaded its neighbour: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.”

When it comes to new policies aimed at addressing concerns that Americans are most concerned about – such as healthcare, economic disparity and climate change – Republicans are absent because of the nihilistic fervour Trump and his protégés like Vance have injected into the party.

That doesn’t mean they are completely ineffective when it comes to fighting against rights that a majority of Americans feel strongly about. A recent Pew Research Centre poll found that 61 per cent of US adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a view that has been mostly unchanged for several years.

Nonetheless, the Republicans have been working for decades to overturn the federally protected right to abortion in America, an outcome that appears all but certain with POLITICO’s publication last week of a draft Supreme Court majority opinion on the matter.

Many moves by Republicans have allowed them to deliver six conservative justices to the Supreme Court bench. The most recent was then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow former president Barack Obama to fill the vacancy that Justice Antonin Scalia’s death created in 2016.

Most pundits expect the Republicans to wrest back control of Congress in the midterms. As Vance takes Portman’s seat, Americans can expect less action on the items they care about while Putin and Xi can sleep better.

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