Mike Pence went into the Farmville, Va., vice presidential debate as a lame-duck, one-term governor and left two hours later as the favorite for conservative Republicans to win the GOP presidential nomination for 2020. Of course that would require Trump losing in November, but we’ll get to that later.
Pence managed his 90-minute career comeback with a combination of a broadcast-quality performance (thanks to a past career as a radio host) and a shrewd political strategy of not even trying to defend much of the record of his own running mate, Donald Trump.
Early in the debate, Kaine threw out the catnip that had crippled Trump’s performance in last week’s debate against Hillary Clinton — references to Miss Universe, Trump’s tax rate, his curious praise for dictators as “strong” and insults for women as “pigs” or “disgusting.”
But Pence ignored the bait as any seasoned professional should. Trump couldn’t help but defend himself, but Pence made a difference choice.
Pence also affirmatively hit on all of Trump’s inexplicable omissions from the last debate. Clinton’s emails? Check. Her private server, check. The Clinton Foundation, check. Her description of half of Trump’s supporters as belonging in “a basket of deplorables?” Done and done.
That kind of blocking and hitting is the sign of a well-prepped candidate. But when it came to some of the most central aspects of Trump’s candidacy, Pence chose to talk about a parallel universe that looked a lot more like Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” than Donald Trump’s vision for the future.
Pence described Trump’s foreign policy just as Reagan described his own, as “peace through strength,” even though Trump routinely talks about “bombing the hell” out of American adversaries and suggests that Japan either pay the U.S. more money for protection of acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Pence described Vladimir Putin as “small and bullying,” while Trump has described Putin as a strong leader for Russia.
On immigration, Pence described Trump’s position as securing the border, building a wall, and deporting criminal aliens — a process that any member of the Gang of Eight could recognize as their own idea — even though Trump’s entire candidacy has been animated since the beginning by his promise to deport all illegal immigrants, not just criminal aliens, with what Trump has described as a “deportation force.”
“They have to go,” Trump tells his crowds, “they have to go.”
When the debate turned to social issues like abortion, Kaine asked Pence why Trump would call for punishing women who seek abortions. Pence responded that he and Trump would never suggest punishing women for making that choice, even though Trump suggested exactly that in an interview with Chris Matthews.
Pence capped off the debate by declaring, “I couldn’t be prouder to be Donald Trump’s running mate.”
Was it helpful to Trump that Pence delivered a top-flight defense of his candidacy, even though the Donald Trump who Pence described doesn’t really exist? Trump might have preferred a more vigorous defense of the things he has actually said and done, but in a year when facts hardly matter, Pence’s steady delivery may be all voters needed from Trump’s VP pick if they were just looking for a sign of adults in the room of a Trump administration.
For disheartened conservatives, Pence’s performance was more than that. It was as a reminder, after months of Trump, of what it’s really like to see a fellow conservative on a national platform, talking about issues they care about in a way that is respectful and effective.
If Trump wins, conservatives can know that at least one of their own will be in the administration to fight their battles for them. If he loses, conservatives got a view Tuesday night of what their future could look like after Trump, a phase many would like to pretend never happened in the first place.
Either way, it’s obvious that conservatives’ future will include Mike Pence.
Mark your calendars for Iowa 2020.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.