Mike Pence as Donald Trump’s running mate seems like a peace offering to Beltway Republicans, but one that is likely to satisfy few of Trump’s critics. The Pence choice has a huge impact – on Indiana politics. But it’s not reassuring to conservatives.
The Trump and Clinton Veepstakes are being closely watched for different reasons. In Trump’s case, because he’s such an unorthodox candidate, people wanted to know what kind of political figure he’d be comfortable running with – and because Trump shows so little interest in the day-to-day job of the presidency, there’s reason to think that if he won the election, his VP could potentially have an outsize role in the many areas of the job that Trump finds too boring to bother with. In Hillary’s case, because she’s likely to win, old, and the Democrats have such a thin bench (Elizabeth Warren, at 67, is the youngest of the party’s big star-power names who could be eligible for the job), her selection could instantly elevate her choice from relative obscurity to heir-apparent status.
In traditional ticket-balancing terms, Pence offers nothing – he’s 59, white, male, white-haired, Protestant, Midwestern. He’s a competent speaker, rarely tongue-tied but also rarely eloquent or inspiring. He’s undoubtedly qualified to take over the big job if needed, having served as a Governor, a Congressman and a member of House leadership, the coveted executive/legislative and inside/outside Beltway resume (two 2016 contenders, John Kasich and Bobby Jindal, had also been both Governors and Congressmen). To Trump supporters who see their guy as a revolutionary against “globalists” and “neocons,” Pence is exactly what they claim to hate – he was an outspoken supporter of the Iraq War, an ardent free trader who backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has sung the praises of NAFTA’s benefits to his state, he angered a lot of immigration hawks with his “compromise” proposal during the 2006 immigration debate, he’s a supporter of entitlement reforms who voted against Medicare Part D, and he has criticized the Muslim-immigration ban that Trump sometimes floats. While many of Trump’s fans are dismayed, the combination of Pence’s serious experience and Trump’s willingness to pick a running mate who’s a more conventional Republican will undoubtedly reassure some Beltway GOP elites.
Grassroots conservatives who dislike Trump and were already mistrustful of Pence will be a tougher sell. The problem isn’t Pence’s ideology, which in general is full-spectrum conservative, but courage: his record as Governor of Indiana has been almost a textbook illustration of everything conservatives find infuriating in DC Republicans, and raises further red flags that Trump would be more of the same. Just as Pence’s immigration plan was viewed by some as an amnesty that claimed not to be an amnesty, his healthcare and education plans in Indiana amounted to a Medicaid expansion that claimed not to be a Medicaid expansion, and Common Core that claimed not to be Common Core. And worst of all was his approach to religious liberty: he pushed a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was exceptionally tepid in content, then folded meekly when the social-activist Left launched a national pressure campaign (complete with corporate boycotts) that was completely predictable but for which Pence was totally unprepared. Pence’s combination of proclaiming strong conservative principles yet delivering a series of humbling defeats makes him the perfect poster boy for what Beltway Republicans think a conservative is, and why so many voters are contemptuous of the party: speak loudly, carry a small stick, convince centrists you’re a right-wing madman while convincing conservatives you’re a squish, and never have a workable strategy to win as opposed to a strategy to tell people you tried. It’s precisely these tendencies that signal to conservatives that Pence – while capable of being a steady and responsible VP – would never have the strength of personality or character to meaningfully influence Mr. Trump.
But if Pence is an uninspired pick for the national ticket, his selection on the very day of the filing deadline for state and federal offices in Indiana (where state law bars pursuing two offices at once) is totally scrambling the state’s politics. Pence dropped his re-election bid, and three Republicans – Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Rokita – all dropped out of their own re-election races to fight for the chance to succeed Pence. It’s hard to predict so far how that impacts the Governor’s race, as Pence was in a dogfight due to his unpopularity at home and the drag from the national Trump campaign (taking the running mate slot gives him a face-saving exit), but it could put two GOP House seats at risk in an election year when the party needs all the strong candidates it can get.