Why is Mike Pence on the Republican ticket?
This is not meant to be a rhetorical question or an insult to the vice president. I am seriously wondering: It is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was after, say, April 2016, that Trump needs to win over the conservative base.
As his almost totally affectless speech surrounded by roughly 8,000 American flags at the end of the third night of the Republican National Convention on Thursday reminded us, Pence doesn’t really strike the right notes in 2020. Two themes have emerged at the end of this campaign: the raw unpolished toughness of the president himself and a historically interesting if largely straitened attempt to appeal to women and minority voters. The current vice president adds nothing to either of these; nor can he speak credibly to the handful of areas in which Trump has attempted to deviate from the GOP line. It is just about possible to imagine a universe in which Trump shocks the world by removing Pence from the ticket in favor of nominating someone like Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
What would Pence have done if he had been given the boot a month ago, though? Written a book? Joined the editorial staff of The Bulwark? Convinced the state of Indiana to stay at home? It seems more likely that he would have taken his lumps and quietly plotted a revenge that consisted of something like asking his wife, Karen, to make a carrot cake for him to smash at the next Pence family birthday party.
But perhaps this is the point. Trump could not be the president he is with a more interesting or capable vice president. He needs the most boring straight man imaginable, someone capable of repeating all of his own talking points on crime, immigration, the economy, and hokey stuff like "the American dream" with roughly one one-millionth of the energy or crude wit.
By the time Pence arrived at the end of his lengthy remarks on Wednesday — a peroration on the American flag with all the gravity of an old Norm Macdonald anti-humor punchline — it was painfully clear: he is happy to oblige.