Does Pence Help Trump?
Mike Pence nailed his vice presidential audition with Donald Trump.
Several additional factors likely influenced Trump’s choice of Pence as his running mate, which Trump planned to announce officially Friday but postponed after Thursday’s truck attack in France.
Maybe it was Pence’s comparison of Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan. Perhaps it was how the Indiana governor cleverly needled Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders with the same jab during his Tuesday night rally with Trump. Or the deal might have been clinched when The Donald watched the news coverage on his way home to New York on Air Force Trump, and just liked how he and Pence looked together while standing in front of that huge American flag in the suburban Indianapolis town of Westfield.
Photogenic considerations aside, Trump is leaning toward a running mate who is decidedly not in his own image.
The presumed GOP presidential nominee is the thrice-married, former playboy billionaire, and insult king with no experience in civic affairs, no history in government and no street cred in conservative politics—right up until this year, when he laid waste to nearly the entire GOP establishment.
Mike Pence is an accomplished, card-carrying member of that self-same establishment. "It's no secret. I'm a big fan of Mike Pence's,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, calling him a good friend and a “good movement conservative.” A former congressman and member of the House Republican leadership, Pence is a fiscally prudent evangelical known for his opposition to gay marriage and Obamacare and who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
He’s also the chief executive of a state in a region Republicans must carry if they’re to compete with Hillary Clinton.
“The center of the Republican universe is going to be the Midwest, and Mike Pence is a consummate Midwesterner,” said Terry Holt, a former John Boehner adviser and veteran GOP operative. Holt is a native-born Hoosier, as is the 57-year-old Pence.
“He never lost touch with his roots,” Holt added. “He’s a conservative Republican that Donald Trump really needed to look at seriously if he was going make any inroads in uniting the party.”
Party unity is certainly the most immediate hurdle facing Trump as he heads into Monday’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland. A handful of prominent Republicans, including George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, have sidestepped endorsing Trump and are avoiding the convention altogether.
Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, the last anti-Trump candidate left standing in the bruising 2016 GOP primary process, has not yet endorsed the man who bested him—or even committed to attending the convention in his home state. In other words, the choice of Pence is a somewhat defensive pick, but Trump finds himself with a lot of territory to defend. And there was some hope in the Trump camp that Pence’s selection will help in that process.
“Mike is a home run choice,” said well-known Ohio Republican Ken Blackwell. “By picking him, Donald Trump gets a solid 'A' for his first presidential decision. It's important that [Pence] commands respect across the board from the Republican Party.”
Some social conservatives fault Pence for what they considered his wooden efforts at trying to steer a middle ground between LBGT rights and religious freedom, an issue that blew up in Indiana last year. But on abortion, the social issue that remains of most import to evangelicals, and one on which Trump’s views were suspect, the Pence pick was welcome news to social conservatives.
“Mr. Trump’s selection of Gov. Mike Pence is an affirmation of the pro-life commitments he’s made and will rally the pro-life grassroots,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement issued midday Thursday.
“Gov. Pence has proven to be a pro-life champion both during his time in Congress and as Governor of Indiana. It was Mike Pence who led the effort to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress, and it was Gov. Pence who signed into law a historic bill protecting unborn children from lethal discrimination in the womb. Mike Pence is a pro-life trailblazer and Mr. Trump could not have made a better choice.”
But if Pence is more conservative than Trump on the right-to-life issues, he’s more liberal than Trump on immigration, specifically regarding Trump’s comments about restricting Muslims’ entry into the United States. Pence’s criticism of Trump in this regard evokes George H.W. Bush’s description of Ronald Reagan’s tax proposals as “voodoo economics.” “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.,” Pence tweeted last December, “are offensive and unconstitutional.”
That said, Pence never joined other prominent conservative Republicans in attacking Trump. Tellingly, when the primary season arrived in Indiana, Pence endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, but he did so tepidly and belatedly—while also lauding Trump.
The way events subsequently played out, Pence’s Hoosier-style diplomacy served him in good stead. Trump won the Indiana primary, effectively ending the Cruz and Kasich campaigns on the spot. Others hadn’t lasted nearly that long. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was cooked after the first primary in New Hampshire; Jeb Bush’s supposed South Carolina “firewall” proved illusionary, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was rudely reminded that Florida is, literally, a second home to Trump.
Although Trump’s habit of responding to criticism from his fellow candidates with threats and insults and of hanging unflattering nicknames on them clearly helped propel him to victory, it also proscribed his options in forming his ticket. It was always going to be awkward choosing a running mate you’d dubbed “Little Marco” or “Lying Ted,” not to mention choosing a woman, Carly Fiorina, whose looks you’d ridiculed.
In the end, the four finalists were believed to be Pence, Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. The GOP nominee had given a myriad of hints and clues about how he would make the decision--many of them conflicting. Earlier in the week, he praised the attributes of an attack dog only to reverse course after campaigning with Pence, who is not known for that kind of role.
Trump is scheduled to formally announce his pick on Friday morning at the New York Hilton, the site of Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign launch.
While Trump stayed relatively quiet on Thursday, Gingrich took to social media for real time analysis of the vice presidential search process, even comparing his skills to Pence’s. “My appeal is more national,” Gingrich said during a Facebook Live chat. “Mike Pence would have a huge Midwestern appeal." The former House speaker said he told Trump during a lengthy conversation the previous day that the nominee “had a choice between having two pirates on the ticket, and a pirate and a relatively stable, more normal person.”
Gingrich’s value would have been in helping Trump govern, but this is a rationale that only takes you so far: you can’t govern if you don’t win. The same dynamic undermined the logic of picking Christie or Sessions. Trump appeared to be personally comfortable with either man. Sessions had the attraction of sharing Trump’s apocalyptic views on immigration. Christie was the first of the GOP primary opponents vanquished by Trump to endorse him; Trump also had to appreciate Christie’s kamikaze attack on Rubio.
And so, it was left for Pence to appear Tuesday night with Trump, where he told a capacity crowd of hollering Hoosiers that Trump “is like no other leader in my lifetime since Ronald Reagan.”