As Trump’s Running Mate, Mike Pence Checks a Lot of Boxes — Faintly

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Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Indiana
"Ain't this guy everything I'm not?" Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein

After 24 hours of mixed signals and drama, Donald Trump made it official on Friday morning that Governor Mike Pence of Indiana is his running mate. With Pence, Trump made the “safe” choice of an established conservative pol whose name does not raise both hackles and ethics antennae, like those two other finalists on the veep list, Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie. He’s been in Congress and in statewide office, and he’s a solid conservative on both social and economics issues. Just as importantly, as he showed from the moment he turned a Ted Cruz endorsement into semi-praise for the ultimate nominee back before his state’s crucial primary, he’s clearly willing to kowtow to Trump and his family with the requisite degree of obsequious self-effacement.

The more you look at Pence’s recent career, however, the more he looks like a running mate who checks all the boxes for Trump, but very faintly.

Most notably, this supposed Republican-unity figure has been struggling in his gubernatorial reelection campaign. You get the distinct sense Hoosier Republicans are pleased to hand him off to Trump so that they can put a better candidate into the race to succeed him. That’s not a very good sign.

From the beginning of his tenure in Indianapolis, Pence has looked diminished by the long shadow of his Republican predecessor, Mitch Daniels, generally rated as a successful chief executive even by Democrats. His meh reputation turned toxic in 2015 when by virtually all accounts he bungled an effort to enact a “religious liberty” law, only to backtrack when his state became the target for high-profile boycott threats from businesses, the NCAA, and even churches. His “fix” of the law to make it less egregiously hostile to the basic rights of LGBT folk left no one satisfied.

The fallout hasn’t really dissipated. Pence’s reputation as an unshakable social conservative is supposedly one of the qualities he brings to Trump, whose own standing with Christian conservatives is as fragile as that “little cracker” (as he calls it) he consumes on occasion at church communion celebrations. So it must be unsettling to Team Trump to hear Christian Right warhorse Tony Perkins pause during his largely successful efforts to ride herd on the Republican platform committee to diss the Indiana governor:

Family Research Council head Tony Perkins told NBC News’ Leigh Ann Caldwell at the RNC’s Platform Committee meeting today that he believes Trump “can do better,” citing Pence’s wavering support for the religious freedom bill he signed into law. “I think he can do better with someone who has not capitulated on something as fundamental as religious freedom,” Perkins said.

Pence also has a reputation as a rock-ribbed economic conservative. But it’s not clear it would survive the upcoming flip-flops over trade and other economic issues he’d have to execute as Trump’s running mate. A video of him praising NAFTA and other past and future trade agreements on the  House floor is already circulating.

Speaking of the House, Pence did not sponsor a single enacted law in 12 years as a congressman. He used to get credit from conservative activists for a two-year chairmanship of the House Republican Study Committee, for decades the conservative group that acted as an ideological commissar monitoring the eternally suspect House Republican leadership. Shortly after Pence’s departure, though, the RSC was impatiently pushed aside by what became the House Freedom Caucus, whose members denounced the RSC as false-flag RINO defenders of the leadership.  Another line on Pence’s résumé began to fade. 

More generally, this man once considered presidential timber has shown himself to be a tad slow on his feet. You have to wonder how he would fare in a debate against a sharp-witted Democrat like Elizabeth Warren or really any of the figures on Clinton’s short list for veep.

So sure, he’s less perilous than Gingrich or Christie, and not in any danger of upstaging the Boss (unless it’s with a gaffe). He ostensibly helps to mend fences with anti-Trump conservatives, but it’s worth keeping in mind #NeverTrump conservative leader Erick Erickson’s sardonic reaction to reports of Pence’s selection:

This will be both fun to watch and vicariously humiliating for so many who for so long backed Pence.

If I had to guess, I’d figure that Pence will soon fade into the background and give Trump what he probably wanted all along: a ticket of Trump looking into a mirror.