Before certain events of last Friday, this year's first and only vice presidential debate might have been politely described as the least anticipated event of 2020, notwithstanding the release of a new Bright Eyes album.
There are good reasons for this, which are worth discussing, as a nation now prepares to turn its lonely eyes to Michael Pence.
The vice president is, surprisingly, one would think, given his ostensibly straight-shooting style, among the least understood figures in American politics. This is true not least of all among liberals, many of whom appear to be under the impression that Pence would have a better chance at the top of the GOP ticket than his boss. The argument, if I understand it correctly, is that the Republican product — lower taxes, repealing the Affordable Care Act — would sell better with different packaging.
This is totally wrong. It is the same absurd logic that led feckless cable news journalists to give Donald Trump the billions of dollars in free air time that ultimately won him his party's nomination in 2016, on the assumption that he was certain to lose the general election. So far from being the least likely candidate to beat Hillary Clinton, Trump is probably the only Republican who could have done it.
Which of the other roughly 224 participants in the 2016 GOP primary could have won Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania? It is difficult now to remember that as recently as 2015, defending the Iraq war was a mainstream position in Republican circles; with the lone exception of Rick Santorum, who had been out of the Senate for a decade, not a single other candidate in that primary was critical of NAFTA or the broader thrust of American trade policy. Trump's insistence upon leaving Social Security and Medicare intact separated him from his opponents, who favored either means testing and increased age thresholds for these programs or their outright elimination. These are not positions that would have won over the small — tens of thousands in a handful of Midwestern states — but crucial number of reliable Democratic voters who broke for Trump.
Nor was Trump's appeal simply a question of policy. It is his crude antagonistic style that endears him to his supporters, many of whom do not share any of the Republican Party's traditional commitments and stand to benefit little if at all from the enactment of its economic agenda. Like Barack Obama before him, Trump managed to convince millions of Americans that voting for him was some kind of life-affirming existential gesture.
It is just about possible to believe that in 2016, Trump needed Pence, who gave him credibility with congressional Republicans and in the wider world of conservative think tanks and media outlets. If the governor of Indiana, for utterly inexplicable reasons then considered something of a rising star in right-wing politics, was on board with this guy, then Tea Party congressmen could hold their noses. But now? I am surprised the president did not dump Pence unceremoniously in favor of someone like Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who briefly served as Trump's ambassador to the United Nations. As things stand, the best that can be hoped for from Pence in Wednesday's debate is that his sheer tediousness will convince viewers to turn off their televisions and watch old Trump clips on YouTube.
Pence is an impossible old fossil, a crude survival of Homo republicanthalensis as the species existed during the Bush administration. His vision of conservatism failed decisively in two successive presidential elections. It has as much of a chance of meeting with a revival in the next one as Perry Como has of reaching the top of the Spotify charts.
This is why fantasies of replacing Trump at the top of the Republican ticket with Pence are absurd regardless of any lingering concerns about the former's health. It is also why in 2024 it is impossible to imagine him winning the nomination, much less the White House.
Regardless of what happens at the beginning of November, Pence has no political future, at least outside of his home state, in which it is possible to imagine him lording over undergraduates and hapless administrators as the chancellor of, say, Purdue University.
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