Friday, July 15, 2016

So What Does Choosing Mike Pence Tell Us About Trump?

Earlier this week, I argued that we should primarily evaluate the selection of a vice presidential running mate by considering what it tells us about the presidential nominee, rather than merely speculate about the (likely minimal) effect of the pick on the outcome of the election.

So what do we learn about Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate or a future president, from the choice of Indiana governor Mike Pence and the process that led to it? Here are a few things that struck me:

1. Trump is famous for demanding loyalty, but he did not insist on a running mate who had endorsed him (or remained neutral) in the presidential primaries. Pence had endorsed Ted Cruz prior to the Indiana primary, though that did not prevent Trump from winning the state easily and knocking Cruz out of the race.

2. Pence has held both legislative and executive office, having served for 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and one term as governor of Indiana. However, his previous experience and responsibilities are not as extensive as past running mates chosen by presidential candidates with little or no service in Washington, such as Joe Biden (Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and ex-Judiciary Committee chair), Paul Ryan (House Budget Committee chair), Dick Cheney (ex-Secretary of Defense, White House chief of staff, and House Republican Whip), Lloyd Bentsen (Senate Finance Committee chair), and George H. W. Bush (ex-CIA director, ambassador to China and the United Nations, House member, and RNC chair). Unlike these other political veterans, Pence also lacks a reputation as a policy specialist or managerial heavyweight. A Vice President Pence would doubtless assist a President Trump in navigating the ways of Washington, but it is not immediately clear that he would necessarily play a critical role in making policy or administering the executive branch.

3. The choice of Pence can be viewed as something of a bridge-building gesture to the subset of movement conservative leaders who remain wary of Trump. It is likely that Pence will serve as the chief intermediary between the organizational apparatus of the traditional Republican Party and the Trump campaign (and, potentially, presidential administration), and that this was a major selling point in the eyes of the pro-Pence faction among Trump's advisors.

4. The process by which Pence was selected seems as revealing as the final selection. If news media accounts are accurate, Trump faced a difference of opinion between political aides who mostly preferred Pence and family members who mostly preferred Gingrich. The political professionals got their way—though a few sources are reporting today that Trump almost changed his mind last night, long after Pence's selection had been leaked to the press. The public rollout has also been awkward; Trump canceled his scheduled press conference this morning in response to the massacre in France but confirmed Pence's selection anyway via Twitter (which may have been prompted by today's deadline for Pence to withdraw from the Indiana ballot). We are left with a picture of a candidate who is unusually dependent on his own family for political advice and who appears less than completely satisfied with the choice of Pence. A potential Trump presidency may not be especially methodical, resolute, or routinely deferential to expert opinion.

5. The evaluation of Pence's suitability as a running mate or potential vice president is dependent upon the identity of the alternatives. Compared to the other members of Trump's short list (Gingrich and Christie, with Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn as secondary options), Pence looks like a safe and even optimal choice, suggesting that Trump is more risk-averse and politically savvy than he looks. But many other leading Republican figures who would otherwise be natural VP candidates were not under active consideration, whether due to their lack of interest or Trump's. Compared to a longer hypothetical menu of potential running mates and vice presidents, Pence seems like an adequate but not unusually inspired choice.