Pence’s Choice: Defend the GOP or Defend His Boss

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In the glare of a nationally televised debate, Pence won’t be able to have it both ways about his own record and Trump’s. Photo: Cengiz Yar/AFP/Getty Images

Much of the speculation surrounding tonight’s vice-presidential debate involves a basic question about Mike Pence: Can he defend Donald Trump’s departures from the campaign script in the first debate while carrying the battle to Clinton and her sponsor Obama more successfully than The Boss?

Pence’s task, Politico suggests, is to “pull a Biden,” an allusion to Joe Biden’s successful effort in 2012 to offset a presidential debate loss and reset the table. Now everyone understands that in trying to “pull a Biden” Pence has a handicap Biden did not have (and that Tim Kaine doesn’t have, either, at least to the same extent): his own history of differences of opinion with the man at the top of the ticket.

So far the Hoosier governor has been able to finesse those disagreements, as have other Republicans who have chosen to endorse and support Trump instead of running for the hills or ignoring him. But unlike those fellow partisans, Pence will be exposed tonight to a full battery of questions about issues on which his positioning and Trump’s are at odds. These include, most prominently, the prosecution of the Iraq War, the Iraq War “surge,” NATO financing, Russia’s threat to U.S. interests in Europe, NAFTA, CAFTA, U.S. accession to the WTO, permanent normal trade relations with China, bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, Panama, Peru, Oman, Chile and Singapore, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration, partial privatization of Social Security, and voucherization of Medicare.

In other words, Pence is a typical conservative Republican, and Trump is not. So what will he do if he is directly and comprehensively asked to defend his party’s traditional positions — which happen to be his own — or Trump’s? Does he buttress the Clinton campaign’s charge that Trump has repudiated traditional Republicanism or dodge opportunities to defend him?

We obviously have no idea if Kaine or the moderator can pin Pence down in this manner. But if I were on Team Pence I’d worry about the possibility that the veep candidate will be challenged to close the breach between his party and its presidential nominee in a short time frame, with the whole world watching. Other Republicans have been able to make individual assessments of the big divisions in the GOP and offer all sorts of rationalizations for supporting Trump despite his many heresies. Pence cannot do that: He will stand for the entire GOP tonight, and if he doesn’t stand squarely for either conservative ideology or for Trumpism, he won’t leave the stage standing at all.