In the end, Donald Trump went with perhaps the most surprising choice of all for his vice presidential pick: An ordinary conservative Republican.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence brings plenty of experience to the Trump ticket. In addition to his time running the state, he had a long career in Congress, where he served for more than a decade and rose to a leadership position. His steady conservative record prompted speculation that he might run as a dark horse presidential candidate in 2012 and 2016, but he declined both times.
It’s easy to see how Pence could help the ticket. Even as Trump prepares to accept his party’s nomination, he still faces intense criticism on the right from Republicans worried about his competence, his inflammatory rhetoric and his lack of interest in traditional conservative ideology. Picking Pence sends a message to these skeptics that maybe –- just maybe –- Trump will govern as a more traditional Republican than he sounds right now.
Pence has both executive and legislative experience, he’s a known quantity to Republicans on Capitol Hill and he’s steeped in the world of conservative interest groups and donors who have been especially critical of Trump throughout the race. Pence is popular with the political network led by Charles and David Koch, who are sitting out the presidential election, as well as Club For Growth, an anti-tax group that threatened to support primary challenges against Republican officials who endorsed Trump early in the race. It doesn’t hurt that Pence has a reputation as a social conservative to balance out the thrice-married Trump’s more rakish brand.
In an encouraging sign, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, two prominent lawmakers who have refused to endorse Trump, told reporters this week they’d welcome Pence to the ticket with open arms and lavished praise on his qualifications. He seems well positioned to reassure nervous conservative allies and perhaps add some new ones without overshadowing the nominee.
If the upside for Trump is that Pence is a generic Republican, the downside for Trump is that Pence is a generic Republican. That means his positions and rhetoric are often out of sync with Trump’s -- something that could become a serious liability as Pence faces a coming barrage of questions about Trump's daily pronouncements.
Trump has made opposition to trade deals like NAFTA and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership central to his message. Pence voted for a number of trade deals in office and, as governor, called on Congress to pass TPP. After the Orlando shooting last month, Trump reiterated calls for an indefinite ban on Muslim travel. Pence called Trump’s Muslim ban “offensive and unconstitutional” on Twitter. Trump regularly takes credit (albeit falsely) for opposing the Iraq War before it began. Pence supported the war.
Those differences can probably be massaged to some degree, and any of Trump’s VP picks would have had their own disagreements with the candidate. The bigger concern may be how Pence’s brand of calm Midwestern conservatism will fare when it runs up against Trump’s daily controversies, which often have less to do with policy than with decency.
Trump, for example, has spent the days since the Dallas police ambush spreading an unsubstantiated rumor that “some people” are holding moments of silence for the man who killed five police officers. The inflammatory claim echoes past bigoted statements by Trump, including his false accusation that he saw “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrate on 9/11 and his use of phony statistics spread by white supremacists that asserted black criminals disproportionately target whites.
It’s not hard to imagine Pence struggling with a line of questions about Trump's comments when he hits the Sunday shows. Gov. Pence, do you agree with Trump’s claim that there are Americans honoring the Dallas shooter? Have you seen any evidence this occurred? Do you think it’s appropriate to make remarks like this without backing them up? Aren’t they an appeal to prejudice?
The individual story isn’t important, though. The point is that there’s always an item like this in the air, whether it’s Trump’s lengthy feud with a federal judge over his “Mexican heritage” or Trump's recent battles over a tweet featuring Hillary Clinton that was widely derided as anti-Semitic and appeared to come from extremist circles.
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Pence’s ability to run through Trump’s daily media firestorm will be an especially important test, because the campaign has a weak surrogate operation and few advertising dollars, which will place pressure on his running mate to do regular interviews to score free media.
Notably, Pence has not proven to be particularly nimble at making his way through a feeding frenzy. Last year, Indiana faced a national backlash over a “religious freedom” bill that critics claimed would allow establishments to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers. Pence’s response was awkward and seemed to upset all sides. He repeatedly dodged questions about the law’s implications in an ABC News interview while defending his decision to sign it. Later, he approved changes to satisfy business groups, which prompted some social conservatives to complain he had caved too easily.
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“I think he can do better with someone who has not capitulated on something as fundamental as religious freedom,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told NBC News before the pick was announced.
If Pence can show some finesse as Trump’s top advocate, though, his benefits to the campaign are clear. Given the reluctance similar Republican officials showed toward joining the ticket, Trump should consider himself lucky that Pence was willing to put his reputation on the line to help win in November.
Additional reporting by Leigh Ann Caldwell.