Donald Trump’s selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate is just what everyone is saying it is: a safe, traditional choice. Pence won’t hurt Trump too much and may help him with Republican politicians and some conservatives.
But the pick is also – and more importantly – something else: a sign of real weakness. There were many Republicans who could have helped Trump far more. He could not turn to them because they are scrambling as far away from this ticket as they can.
And there were Republicans with whom Trump personally felt far more comfortable: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Trump could not turn to where his heart seemed to want to go because both were too much like him and carried too much baggage. The irrepressible Gingrich blurted out the truth: that he and Trump would constitute “a two pirate ticket,” whereas Pence was “a relatively stable, more normal person.” Never let it be said that Newt is entirely bereft of self-awareness.
The biggest loss to Trump comes from the refusal of so many Republicans even to be considered for the job. Gov. John Kasich or Sen. Rob Portman would have brought more political heft to the ticket for the simple reason that they are from Ohio, at or near the top of the must-win list for candidates in election after election. Kasich had the potential to reach far beyond Trump’s constituency and also beyond the Republican Party. The same, to a lesser degree perhaps, can be said of Portman.
Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico would have been another obvious plus for Trump, who can use all the help he can get with both women and Latinos. But Trump chose to criticize Martinez’s tenure as governor and, in any event, she had already signaled her uneasiness with him.
One could multiply the list of lost opportunities, but one of the biggest stories here is just how many Republicans have decided that their futures will be better served by staying away from Trump.
That left Pence as, in Gingrich’s terms, the best “normal person” option. Pluses for Pence include strong ties to Capitol Hill (including a friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan), an agreeable personality (a Democrat I know in Indiana who has tangled with Pence on issues sees him nonetheless as a nice-guy sort of politician), and an appeal to social conservatives.
But even that appeal is slightly compromised by Pence’s flip-flopping on “religious liberty” legislation around gay weddings. As The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips wrote in an excellent sketch of Pence, some conservatives “thought he backed off last year’s religious freedom debate under pressure from liberals.”
And it says something about the doubts so many conservatives have about Trump and his need to appease them that he had to go to his right for a running mate. He could not turn instead to someone who might have broadened his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters. Trump received a fair share of the ballots of social-issue moderates in the northeast during the primaries. Those voters and moderate independents will not be reassured by Pence. In fact, social liberals will try to use Pence to tie Trump to the most conservative elements of the GOP.
So the verdict that Pence is probably the best Trump could do is double-edged.
Yes, Pence has experience; yes, he raised no obvious alarms; yes, he’s from the Midwest, which is the focus of Trump’s strategy; yes he’s articulate (he’s a former radio talk show host, after all); and yes, regular politicians will like him.
But Pence adds little to Trump’s appeal outside the ranks of conservative ideologues. He does not win over voters who would like to think that Trump, under all his pirate-ness, is more moderate than he lets on. And he does not help build support in a swing state. If Trump is in trouble in Indiana, he’s probably in trouble in a lot of other places that a, well, more normal Republican might be able to take for granted.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.