Why Mike Pence would do little to help Donald Trump

The Indiana governor has some terrible downsides as a VP candidate

Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
(Image credit: Photo Illustration | Image courtesy AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

If Donald Trump confirms that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) is indeed his running mate, it's a very strange choice.

Pence doesn't strike anyone as an especially capable media defender of Trumpism, particularly not compared to Newt Gingrich or Chris Christie. Nor does he really excite restive conservatives. In fact, Pence may excite more hatred from the left than affection from the right. And he probably wasn't Trump's first choice. Some are reporting that more surprising and interesting figures, including Condi Rice, declined Trump's consideration.

The theory behind Mike Pence would go something like this: Pence is a religious man, which will be reassuring to the remaining church-going Republicans who are skeptical of Trump. And perhaps more importantly, Pence is a good fundraiser and much admired by the deep-pocketed donors on the Republican side.

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But Pence's potential downsides are terrible.

Ann Coulter, in a column predicting Trump may make a mistake with the pick, wrote, "The moment Trump chooses his vice presidential candidate, every person in the media will be handed a personalized crowbar to pry daylight between Trump and his nominee."

And so it came to pass. Within minutes of the rumor breaking, journalists were unearthing Pence arguing for free trade during the days and weeks Trump was impugning NAFTA and other trade deals. Or Pence saying that a blanket ban on Muslim entrance into the U.S. — a policy Trump floated — was unconstitutional and offensive.

It certainly doesn't feel like a united ticket. Pence has also been a big promoter of comprehensive immigration reform, which conservatives read as a three-word euphemism for amnesty softened by a false promise to attempt border enforcement at an unspecified date. Pence has supported a version of "touchback amnesty," a policy Trump has flirted with in the past and which restrictionists hate.

And even if Pence qualifies, in some minds, as a normal Republican, he is not a particularly inspiring one. Activists hated it when he gave wide berth to Common Core education standards. And in his one brush with the national spotlight — a 2015 fight over Indiana's proposed law modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act — he managed to screw it up. He could have paired religious liberty protections with LGBT-backed non-discrimination measures, like Utah. Or he could have fought the business and media pressure, likely winning. Instead, he fought for a few days, earned all the bad press, and then backed down. Along the way, he seemed, well, rather dim-witted about it all. He gave the impression of a politician that could deliver a well-scripted line, but would be lost writing one of his own.

And the ways in which Pence is a "normal Republican" will reflect badly on him. For instance, there was his humiliating obeisance to tobacco lobbies. Or his long history of taking deeply socially-conservative positions that will be used to humiliate him during the campaign. As in his RFRA battle, the safe bet is for Pence to just look vacant and go blank when challenged on them. Pence is not even particularly popular in his own state.

But looked at symbolically, it is a fitting match. Mike Pence represents the Republican Party's slow-witted, mercenary, and substance-free style; he embodies its mediocrity, greed, and cravenness. And his selection as Trump's running mate is like an arranged marriage in which no one expects real happiness, but instead comforts themselves with the hope of proximity to money and a whiff of power.

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.