WASHINGTON – Why does Mike Pence keep getting himself into such deplorable situations?
Donald Trump’s vice-presidential nominee went on CNN on Monday evening, trying to make hay from Hillary Clinton’s calling half of Trump’s backers racists and other “deplorables.” But the appearance backfired when Pence declined to label former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke “deplorable,” saying, “I’m not in the name-calling business.”
Duke expressed satisfaction with Pence’s appearance. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, in an exquisite Freudian slip, said Tuesday morning on CNN that Pence should call Duke deplorable, “so that he doesn’t get headlines saying, ‘Mike Pence will not say Donald Trump is deplorable.’”
Later Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) issued a statement urging Republicans to call Duke the D-word.
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But Pence, appearing before the cameras with House GOP leaders at Republican National Committee headquarters, said he had no wish to amend his description of Duke.
Pence allowed that the white nationalist is a “bad man” whose support “we do not want.” But, he repeated, “I’m not in the name-calling business,” he said, because “civility is essential” and “I’m also not going to validate the language that Hillary Clinton used.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and the other leaders nodded as Pence said these words. Perhaps they understand why a white supremacist is deserving of “civility” at a time when Trump has dispensed with such niceties for everybody else – and why it’s name-calling to identify Duke as “deplorable” but not to call him a “bad man.”
Such awkward positions have become routine for Pence since joining Trump on the ticket. I’ve always thought him an honorable and amiable man, and I accept his friends’ assessment that he took the job in hopes of changing Trump. Instead, it seems that Trump has changed him.
There was Pence, once a hawkish conservative, joining Trump last week in praise of Vladimir Putin, calling him “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” (Maybe that has something to do with Putin being a dictator?)
There was Pence last month joining Trump in spreading conspiracy theories, declaring on talk radio that “we’ve got to get to the bottom” of whether an Iranian scientist was killed because of “the revelations in Hillary Clinton’s email.” The executed scientist, Shahram Amiri, had outed himself.
There was Pence in July, retreating from his support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, embracing Trump’s border wall and saying Mexico will “absolutely” pay for it. That same month, Pence, who once called Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the country “offensive and unconstitutional,” declared himself “very supportive” of suspending immigration from countries with terrorist influences.
The vice-presidential nominee has picked his battles with Trump. He declined to join Trump in asking Russia to hack Clinton’s email, or in raising doubts that President Obama was born in the United States. Pence endorsed Ryan and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in their primaries when Trump wouldn’t.
In this, he is very much like the man he stood with at the RNC on Tuesday, Ryan, who has condemned Trump for his “textbook” racism, for an “anti-Semitic” and “ridiculous” tweet, and for his praise of Putin.
But as polls show Trump cutting Clinton’s lead, Ryan swallowed any misgivings Tuesday morning and embraced the ticket almost as enthusiastically as Pence had. “We feel the wind at our backs,” said Ryan, introducing Pence, his former congressional colleague, as “the next vice president.”
Indeed, Pence and the House leaders made it plain at their joint session Tuesday that they were wholly and unreservedly embracing Trump.
Reporters crowded into a stifling RNC lobby where the party displays memorabilia of party greats and not-so-greats (a portrait of Abraham Lincoln shares equal billing with a photo of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus) and listened to GOP leaders recite Trump’s slogan:
Steve Scalise (La.), the majority whip, saw “people all around the country excited about this optimism that their ticket, the Trump-Pence ticket, is giving to making America great again.”
Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the tongue-tied majority leader, detected “a lot of excitement as Pence travels across the country with a number of members joining him in the future of making America great again.”
Pence accepted their accolades and thanked House Republicans for “rallying to the cause to make America great again.”
A reporter asked Pence about Ryan’s earlier criticism of Trump. Pence dismissed the occasional “differences of opinion,” saying “our goals are identical.”
That’s increasingly true – because Pence and other Republicans have embraced Trump’s goals.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.