Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote probably the best take on Mike Pence’s performance last night over at The Week:
Pence seemed to know that it would be a losing strategy to explain or defend the scores of zany, offensive, or discomfiting things Trump has said. So he just pretended to be Lindsey Graham’s veep candidate instead.
Months ago, Trump gave a foreign policy speech in which he praised the values of an “America First” foreign policy. Citing the disasters in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, Trump criticized the Bush Doctrine itself. “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy,” he said.
Mike Pence ignored this. Instead, he went with what had become the normal Republican attack on Democratic foreign policy over the last five decades: that the Democrats are too weak. ISIS and other calamities in the Middle East were caused by a lack of American action, Pence implied. Or by the Democratic president withdrawing troops on the schedule set by a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.
Pence laughed and shrugged when Kaine pointed out that Trump said NATO is obsolete. Pence then launched into a long discourse about Russian perfidy. He said that the solution to Russian expansionism in its near-abroad was sterner American leadership, and he even started talking about a military buildup. You’d have no clue that a few months ago, Trump had dismissed pessimists about America’s relations with Russia by saying, “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon… Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”
It’s normal for members of a political party to project onto their party leader their own beliefs. Millions of Republicans are going to pull the lever for Trump this year because they believe a man who spent years defending even late-term abortions and most gun restrictions will faithfully defend pro-life causes and the Second Amendment. But it is not normal to watch a candidate’s running mate go through this exercise publicly.
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. Party figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani embrace Trump as he is. Others, like Paul Ryan, try to demand more, and get nothing in return. Ted Cruz tried to shiv Trump at the convention, then feebly extracted a meaningless promise from him before endorsing him in September. Every strategy of blocking Trump, co-opting Trump, or parlaying with him as failed.
But in this debate, Pence did something that no one has tried before. He simply refused to acknowledge that there was any problem at all. You’ve heard lots of crazy things about Trump. But I’m here to do a job, and frankly, acknowledging the reality of his situation or ours can only get in my way. Pence made it seem as if Trump’s own words, when spoken by Tim Kaine, somehow discredited Tim Kaine. Mike Pence was a walking, talking memory hole.
That’s the best version of the take, but it’s hardly a unique take. Dougherty was joined in his overall assessment by Jamelle Bouie, Matt Yglesias, and Frank Bruni on the left, and by John Podhoretz on the right, among others. The clear consensus among the pundit class is that Mike Pence won the debate by not doing his job of defending the ticket, instead pretending he lived in an alternate reality in which Donald Trump never happened.
But why did he do it?
One possibility is that Pence isn’t thinking about 2016 but about 2020. Forced to choose between opposing his party’s choice and opposing his party’s principles, he’s chosen to pretend that there was no choice to make, so as not to alienate any faction. But if that’s the way he’s thinking, then what does that say about his views of the Republican electorate who chose Trump? After all, Pence is the kind of opponent Trump ate as a between-meal snack back when the primaries were going on. Why would he think the GOP electorate would want somebody like him next time if they wanted Trump this time? And if he thinks in 2020 the GOP will be looking for an anti-Trump, why did he accept the VP slot in the first place?
The best explanation, assuming he’s thinking about 2020, is that he thinks Trump’s loyalists will be thinking only about the appearance of loyalty, while the donor class and the pundit class will care about the substance of his positions. And that’s a rather contemptuous attitude to take towards the electorate, when you think about it.
Which is why I don’t think it’s quite correct.
An alternative possibility is that he is indeed thinking about 2016, and that the performance was aimed at people who are queasy about Trump. From this perspective, Pence isn’t gaslighting anybody — he’s speaking to people who badly want to be gaslit, conservatives who never supported Trump in the primaries and who are distraught by their choice in the general election.
These people want a choice they can believe in, and Pence gave them one — two, actually, depending on just how far down the rabbit hole they are willing to go. They can either believe in his fantasy version of Donald Trump, and choose not to listen to the real thing at all between now and election day, the better to preserve their innocence. Or they can believe that the real Donald Trump exists, but that he isn’t actually interested in being more than an entertaining figurehead, and that Mike Pence will make sure that the actual decisions made reflect orthodox conservative Republican priorities.
The latter in particular is a potent fantasy that more than one Republican leader has fallen prey to over the course of the past year. Maybe it’ll work on those stubborn Republican sheep who still won’t come back into the fold?
Or, maybe that performance wasn’t aimed at anyone. Maybe this is who Mike Pence is.
Pence always struck me as an real exemplar of the kind of faith-based “thinking” according to which what must be true is true. Therefore because the Republican Party stands for certain things then Donald Trump by definition stands for those things, too, and anything that doesn’t fit that picture must just be a misunderstanding.
That’s not an explanation to be casually discarded just because Pence is a guy who’s been around politics a while and has had his share of success in that game. There are plenty of people like that in politics — indeed, there are plenty of people like that in both parties. Donald Trump would never have happened in the first place if the GOP hadn’t gotten so good at that kind of “thinking with the church” that much of the leadership had forgotten how to do anything else.
Regardless of the reason, Pence’s performance doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a post-Trump debate within the GOP.