What the ‘safe’ VP pick Mike Pence says about the GOP

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, accompanied by his wife Karen, waves as he leaves a meeting with presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump in New York on Friday.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, accompanied by his wife Karen, waves as he leaves a meeting with presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump in New York on Friday. AP

What does it say about status of the Republican Party that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is considered to be the “safe” choice for vice president?

As the GOP gathers in Cleveland for its national convention, its ticket is a testament to the upheaval wracking the party. At the top, of course, there is Donald Trump, who neither walks the party’s walk nor talks its talk with any consistency, whatever his entertainment value.

And now there is Pence, whose mild-mannered Midwestern style may seem “establishment” by contrast, but who actually is more of a throwback to the imaginary past to which Trump says America should return, and which he confuses with “greatness.”

Pence, 57, is a born-again evangelical Christian and a staunch social conservative who proudly says his religion guides his public policy. But he hardly speaks for the American mainstream.

He believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman, that abortion should be outlawed and that there should be as few restrictions on guns as possible. Before becoming governor in 2012, he spent 12 years in Congress, where he rose within the ranks and tried to defund Planned Parenthood long before it was the popular thing to do. Other than that, he didn’t do much. He never managed to introduce a bill that became law.

As governor, he’s rankled opponents and allies alike, earning national scorn for a religious freedom law that opened the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians, and for trying to ban Syrian refugees from settling in his state. His approval rating is less than 50 percent. If Trump hadn’t plucked him from Indianapolis, Pence was in serious danger of losing re-election to a Democrat.

He isn’t a top-tier candidate, or a policy wonk, or even an obvious choice to draw the moderates, independents and minority voters that the party needs to defeat Hillary Clinton. He is, however, willing to join Trump’s ticket.

Most establishment Republicans have gone out of their way to keep their distance. In fact, the Cleveland convention is most notable for the Republicans who won’t be there, including party elders Mitt Romney and John McCain, as well as all of the Bushes and former rival Sen. Marco Rubio.

Pence’s one strong suit, politically, is that he will reassure the conservative base. That is, unless Trump undercuts even that potential contribution. Even the announcement that he had chosen Pence was a study in conflict between the party and its standard bearer.

Though Trump had said he would postpone his news in the wake of the terror attack in Nice on Bastille Day, he ended up pre-empting his – and his party’s – own press conference. With the formal announcement set for Saturday, but Pence facing a Friday deadline to withdraw his candidacy for re-election in Indiana, Trump on Friday morning went to his go-to platform a day early, tweeting: “I am pleased to announce that I have chosen Governor Mike Pence as my Vice Presidential running mate.”

That’s surely the first time a running mate has ever been named via Twitter. But it’s not likely to be the last mixed message from the Republican Party.

The GOP is split between members who are angry about the economy and don’t care about social issues, and members like those who drafted the party’s platform, which calls for teaching the Bible in public schools, banning same-sex marriage and allowing “conversion therapy” for gay children.

Caught in the middle are people like California delegate and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who is gay and scheduled to speak at the convention on Thursday. And left out altogether are the many mainstream and moderate Republicans who have skipped the convention.

In this chaotic landscape, Trump and Pence represent two of many motley factions. And unless the Republicans can find some common cause – and a way to communicate with one voice – there’s not much between them to make America great.