Donald Trump just tapped his polar opposite for VP. Big mistake.

When he ought to be figuring out how to appeal to the broad American electorate, Trump is still acting as though his most urgent task is to persuade Republican primary voters to get behind him

Mike Pence and Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Photo Illustration | Images courtesy Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images, REUTERS/Tami Chappel)

Just imagine the sighs of relief that Donald Trump's now-confirmed decision to name Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) as his running mate must have caused in his campaign headquarters. Not the bully-turned handmaid Chris Christie, currently enjoying approval ratings in the 20s back in New Jersey; not the widely reviled Newt Gingrich, who famously engineered Bill Clinton's impeachment while he himself was cheating on his wife; and not Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the Alabama senator with, let's just say, a complicated racial history. Instead, Trump selected the most boring of the candidates on the short list of people who were willing to run with him. I think I speak for all journalists when I say that we are deeply saddened to be deprived of the incandescent splendor that a Trump-Gingrich ticket would have been.

Apparently, Trump's senior staff and advisors were in a panic earlier this week because they thought their candidate was leaning away from Pence and toward Christie; this particularly bothered Trump's son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner, since when Christie was a prosecutor he put Kushner's father in prison for some white-collar crimes. If the reports are accurate, the impetuous, imperious Trump was on the verge of doing something foolish, but for once more sensible voices pulled him back from the edge and convinced him to make a less risky choice.

On the other hand, two weeks ago noted prognosticator Bill Kristol tweeted that he was hearing Trump would pick either Pence or retired general Michael Flynn. Why? "One among several reasons: Trump is convinced one-syllable last names convey strength." That seems as plausible an account of Trump's thinking as anything else.

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While Trump had said he wanted a running mate with Washington experience (Pence served in the House of Representatives for 12 years), he chose someone who in many ways is his polar opposite. Even if you find him despicable, Trump has an undeniable charisma — not necessarily the kind that attracts you to him, but the kind it's hard to look away from.

Pence, on the other hand, doesn't appear to have cracked a smile since Ronald Reagan left office. Perhaps I'm being ungenerous, but he reminds me of the villain in every teen movie I watched growing up. He's the stern father who won't let his daughter out of her room to date the hero; he's the cruel developer shutting down the roller rink where all the kids hang out; he's the corrupt mayor fixing the dance contest and the vindictive vice-principal making sure nobody in school can have any fun.

Pence is also a doctrinaire conservative running with someone with notably flexible ideological beliefs. Possessed of near-perfect lifetime ratings from conservative interest groups, as both a congressman and a governor Pence has been a particularly vigorous crusader on social issues, where Trump's beliefs tend to be somewhat looser than even his ideas about other issues. Pence sponsored the first bill to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursements for medical services (aka "defunding") in 2007, and as governor continued to target the group by slashing state medical funds. Some blame a 2013 HIV outbreak in rural Scott County, Indiana, on the fact that the county's only HIV testing site, a Planned Parenthood clinic, had been forced to shut its doors not long before.

Pence's fervent opposition to gay rights is also a contrast with Trump's somewhat laissez-faire attitude about sexuality. Pence came to national attention in 2015 when he signed a "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" that not only allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay people but invalidated local non-discrimination ordinances in Indiana cities. Amid a furious national backlash, Pence signed another bill "clarifying" the first one to make its apparent state endorsement of discrimination less sweeping; interestingly enough, that led many diehard conservatives to view Pence as a capitulator in the culture war.

That may mitigate the degree to which Pence's addition to the ticket can excite social conservatives to get enthusiastic about Trump. But the truth is that Trump may not have to worry too much about them; recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows that evangelicals support Trump even more strongly right now than they supported Mitt Romney four years ago. They'll probably be happy about Pence, but their minds were already made up.

So it's hard to see Trump picking Pence as anything other than a symptom of a problem I've been calling attention to for some time: When he ought to be figuring out how to appeal to the broad American electorate, Trump is still acting as though his most urgent task is to persuade Republican primary voters to get behind him. He's still running a white nationalist campaign, and has discarded the "pivot" he was going to do for the general election. It may have been too tall an order for his VP pick to change how people see him — running mates usually don't make much of a difference in the end, since after an initial burst of attention voters refocus on the person on top of the ticket — but it might have at least been a chance to make a gesture indicating that he cared what those who aren't already Republicans think.

But from everything we can see, Trump doesn't particularly care. I suppose you can give him some credit for not picking Gary Busey or Mike Tyson to be his running mate; Mike Pence may be nobody's idea of a genius, but at least he knows there are three branches of the federal government and has been in office long enough to have a sense of how the system works. But that's a pretty low bar.

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