Can Mike Pence bridge the gap between Trumpism and traditional conservatism?

His debate performance suggests he's up to the seemingly daunting task

What role does Mike Pence serve in this election?
(Image credit: Photo illustration | Image courtesy Brain light / Alamy Stock Photo)

The dynamics of vice presidential debates are strange. While there's little a vice presidential nominee can say during the debate to significantly boost his ticket, there's plenty he can do to damage it. So both candidates tend to be very careful. This can make for a boring spectacle.

But Tuesday's VP debate was actually pretty entertaining. The candidates bickered like petulant children and each produced their fair share of half-truths in an attempt to bring the other down. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and loyal Clinton foot soldier, came to the table with one main goal: Attack Donald Trump. This is in keeping with Hillary Clinton's strategy, which is to basically make absolutely no policy concessions to the center and instead relentlessly attack Trump's character. Fair enough.

But what about Mike Pence? Trump's VP pick had the difficult task of defending Trump while still representing the sane, traditionally conservative half of the ticket.

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Pence brushed off Kaine's attacks against Trump. The rest of his debate night strategy, and the logic behind it, is a bit harder to suss out. My colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests that Pence simply rolled out the mainstream, Reaganite conservative catechism, essentially ignoring the differences between traditional conservatism and Trump's platform. "It's as if Pence was the designated survivor of the Republican primary, a man held away from the carnage Trump has inflicted on the Republican Party, its conventions, orthodoxies, and pieties," Dougherty writes. He thinks this is a preview of how the Republican establishment will deal with the fallout from Trump's campaign if he loses in November: Pretend nothing happened. Nothing to see here. Move along.

To the contrary, Vox's Dara Lind thinks Pence showed us a Trumpified GOP. Even though Pence danced around some of Trump's more outrageous promises, he still held to a strong anti-immigration line. And on race and law and order, he was definitely Trumpified. Pence argued that "the real problem with race relations in America is bias against police officers," and claimed to articulate the feelings of "a lot of white people who are told all their lives that racism is a horrible thing and then told suddenly that they too are racist."

"[H]e didn't articulate a pre-Trump conservatism — the conservatism of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, a 'post-racial' conservatism that dismisses any discussion of racial difference," Lind writes. "He was identifying the same problems as Trump — threats from abroad and within — and the same priorities in fixing them. That's a big shift from the doctrinaire conservatism of the last decade or two, with its focus on fiscal issues and sexual morality."

So, what does Pence's performance say about him, his prospects as a vice president, and how he's been influenced by Trumpism?

Yes, Pence essentially ignored Trump's deviations from mainstream Republican orthodoxy and doubled down on the habitual GOP hawkishness. But he wouldn't have been talking so much about law and order and race if Trump hadn't been at the top of the ticket.

As such, I think his debate performance suggests Pence is trying to figure out a synthesis between traditional conservatism and Trumpism, and articulate that synthesis to the public. What, exactly, does this synthesis look like? It's a mix of movement conservatism, immigration restrictionism, and a renewed focus on law and order. Will it be enough to keep Trump voters and mainstream Republicans inside the same tent? That's not clear, but Mike Pence wants to find out.

He has made a terrible choice by tying himself to a ship captained by Trump. But on the other hand, he has signed up to a no-lose proposition: If Trump loses, Pence automatically becomes a leading contender for 2020, one uniquely placed to capture the same movement Trump built without the character issues and screw-ups that made Trump toxic for the rest of the electorate.

But if Trump wins, Washington Republicans fully expect to box Trump in as much as possible through appointments, and administrative and bureaucratic shenanigans. Pence will essentially act as regent. In Pence's dream scenario, he gets four terms as president: Two as Trump's VP, then two more as commander in chief.

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Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared at Forbes, The Atlantic, First Things, Commentary Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Federalist, Quartz, and other places. He lives in Paris with his beloved wife and daughter.