“Boring is his camouflage,” a longtime acquaintance of Mike Pence once told the vice president’s biographer.
Pence is both ideological (he was a favorite of both the Tea Party and the Christian Right at the peak of both movements) and ambitious (he’s been running for office since 1988), but this acquaintance seemed to suggest that his lack of charisma and aversion to Trumpian spectacle masked these raw political traits.
On Wednesday, in a somnolent speech to a crowd of supporters without face coverings on the third night of the Republican National Convention, Pence pressed that disguise into service for Donald Trump. All week, Republicans have swerved between showcasing the minor celebrities of the MAGA diaspora (Charlie Kirk, Ric Grenell, Lara Trump) who thrill Trump’s hardcore supporters, and parading out conspicuously non-Trumpian figures (immigrants, people of color, women, medical professionals on the frontline battling Covid-19) intended to reframe the president as more likable, empathetic, moderate and accomplished — especially to those coveted suburban swing voters who have abandoned him.
The result has been something of a mashup of CPAC, the annual insider conference for the right that tends to feature the more outlandish showmen of the conservative entertainment world, and C-SPAN, the cable home of unedited political speechifying.
During all of this the president himself has been largely confined to nightly set-piece videos where he has been uncharacteristically restrained in his comments. His Twitter feed has been relatively tame and dominated by reposts of convention videos. At the end of Pence’s speech on Wednesday, Trump was seen but not heard.
Pence is the ultimate avatar for this strategy. He is simultaneously the most and least Trumpian man in America. Pence is famously subservient, obsequious and loyal to the president. At Trump’s command, the VP once left a football game between the San Francisco Forty-Niners and the Indianapolis Colts, his home team, to protest players protesting.
At a White House briefing earlier this year, as Pence stood silently at his side, Trump told reporters that his own “authority is total.” I was in the room and I asked Pence if he agreed. The vice president, who has said that his most important political influences are Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Russell Kirk, three intellectual architects of America’s small government conservative movement, stepped to the microphone and responded. “Make no mistake about it: In the long history of this country, the authority of the president of the United States during national emergencies is unquestionably plenary,” he said, which means unqualified or absolute. So much for Hayek.
But Pence’s personal rectitude, lack of pizzaz, religiosity and modest finances, have also made him the most un-Trumpian person in the administration. It was exactly this contrast that attracted Trump’s advisers to Pence as a running mate in the first place. The candidate was down in the polls in July of 2016 and widely seen as deeply unserious, immoral and unpresidential. Pence was the antidote to all of that, but Trump wanted Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor scarred by the Bridgegate scandal. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, was so convinced of the benefits of Pence that when the team was in Indianapolis he made up a story about Trump’s plane needing repairs so that Trump could spend more time with Pence and ditch Christie. The ruse worked.
And so in 2020 Pence, who as vice president can go long stretches without ever being heard from, was again front and center last night making the argument that Trump the caricature and Trump the president are two different people.
“I’ve seen him when the cameras are off,” Pence said, suggesting that behind the scenes, and contrary to the accounts of dozens of former administration officials, Trump is not like that.
Putting aside the merits of Pence’s character assessment of Trump, his argument for a second term on Wednesday night was the best distillation of what the GOP is trying to accomplish this week. First he laid out the best case possible for the Trump administration’s achievements: an improved military (he “created the Space Force”), a (once) roaring economy, the defeat of ISIS, a reformed Department of Veterans Affairs, the Senate approval of more than 200 federal judges.
At their debate in Utah on October 7, Kamala Harris will be quick to respond to Pence that all of these achievements, aside from the judges, were simply the continuation of circumstances or policies inherited from Obama. But there’s a lot that happened on the current administration’s watch to brag about in the context of a political campaign — more than many critics on the left are willing to acknowledge.
In Pence’s telling, this glowing record was then undercut by the coronavirus pandemic, which is true. The portion of his speech where things get very foggy is his discussion of the response to the pandemic. There is a recitation of some of the actions taken, heartfelt sympathy for the victims of the disease, paeans to health-care workers, and a promise to open up the country and bring back the old Trump economy. But there was no acknowledgment that the pandemic still rages on and no details of a plan to stop it.
Instead, Pence changed the subject.
Pence’s case for Trump-Pence abruptly turned toward the anti-racism protests, which is now the heart of the Trump campaign’s message and is worth quoting at some length.
“My fellow Americans, we are passing through a time of testing. For in the midst of this global pandemic, just as our nation has begun to recover, we’ve seen violence and chaos in the streets of our major cities,” he said. “President Donald Trump and I will always support the right of Americans to peaceful protest, but rioting and looting is not peaceful protest. Tearing down statues is not free speech. Those who do so will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
“Last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country. Let me be clear: The violence must stop — whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha. Too many heroes have died defending our freedoms to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of America.”
The conventional wisdom is that Trump is doomed. Many swing voters think he is obnoxious and unfit to be president. His bungling of the Covid catastrophe is not something that can be overcome with P.R. Attitudes on race of many Americans, who he was hoping would turn against Black Lives Matter, are more progressive than he understood. Biden and Harris have successfully defined themselves in the center and avoided unpopular stands on immigration, defunding the police and doing away with private health insurance.
Pence’s speech tried to tackle all of that. Could it work? At this point in 2016 Trump was similarly thought to be unelectable. But his final weeks were marked by at least some message discipline introduced by his third campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, and he was given enormous electoral gifts by James Comey, Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin. Voters are myopic and many only pay attention during the final weeks of the campaign when the full Trump makeover will be in effect. Trump has a 7-8 point national polling deficit but the race will soon tighten, as it often does after the conventions, and Trump could lose the popular vote by 4-5 points and still win the Electoral College. Several pro-Biden pollsters have recently warned that the sporadic urban violence Pence highlighted is starting to show up in polling in ways that harm the Democrats. In short, yes, Pence’s case for Trump could work. They could win reelection.
But whatever happens, Pence has now become the ultimate Trump true believer.
In May 2019, Pence delivered the commencement address at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. As the White House’s liaison to the evangelical community, Pence had found a natural audience of Trump base voters to woo (though I suppose we now know that there was at least one swing voter there as well). He told students a story about how when he was in college and letting go of the Catholicism of his youth and embracing evangelical Christianity, he told a friend at a Christian fellowship that he wanted to buy a cross.
“Hey man, you know, I’ve decided to go ahead and do the Christian thing,” Pence told the friend. “So, I want to get one of those crosses you wear, so let me know where you got it.”
In words Pence said he never forgot, the friend looked him in the eye and responded, “Mike, you know, you got to wear it in your heart before you wear it around your neck.”
A similar question about Pence’s devotion to Trumpism has always hung over Pence’s vice presidency. But last night Pence proved that MAGA is not just something that he wears on his head. He also wears it in his heart.