Erika D. Smith

Think the GOP can’t do worse than Trump? Meet Mike Pence

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence walks with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, in Indianapolis on Wednesday. Many expect Trump will name Pence as his running mate on Friday.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence walks with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, in Indianapolis on Wednesday. Many expect Trump will name Pence as his running mate on Friday. The Associated Press

As I write this, signs are pointing to the politically logical, but civilly frightful: Donald Trump picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate.

Nothing is certain, of course. The presumptive Republican nominee is predictably unpredictable.

But if Trump makes the announcement everyone expects, it will be my nightmare, and it should be yours, too.

A year ago, I left Indiana, in large part to get away from the first-term governor and his policies that too often seem to punish anyone who isn’t white, straight, male, middle class and Christian. In fact, cities in California and across the country are dotted with young ex-pats who are proud to call themselves Hoosiers – not “Indianans” – but want nothing to do with a man hell-bent on running his state like a church.

But that’s Mike Pence, an unreasonable guy who uses the Bible to sound reasonable.

He’s nice enough and looks good on paper. Heck, he’s downright inspiring compared to the others vying for vice president, including con man Chris Christie and morally bankrupt Newt Gingrich. And he definitely seems more palatable than Trump.

Where Trump is obnoxious and loud, Pence is polite and soft-spoken. Trump has zero experience in government, other than attending parties thrown by politicians. Pence spent six terms in Congress.

Trump embarrasses most establishment Republicans with racist rants. Pence is genuinely liked and respected. Just this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan called Pence a personal friend.

Trump claims to be religious but takes Christian leaders into his office for a photo-op in front of a framed picture of himself on the cover of Playboy. Pence is a born-again Christian who actually goes to church.

People doubt that Trump is actually a Republican. Pence tells people he’s “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

On paper, the two men are very different – in an ulcer-relieving way, if you’re an establishment Republican or a social conservative. But look a little closer, as I have in meetings with him as member of the editorial board of The Indianapolis Star, and you’ll see that they’re really just two sides of the same crazy coin.

Like Trump, Pence is tone deaf and uninterested in learning what he doesn’t know. He’s an ideologue who surrounds himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear. His bubble is so airtight that differing opinions often come as a complete shock to him.

It’s a trait that has backfired multiple times during his time as governor.

Perhaps the most egregious example was Pence’s decision to sign a “religious freedom” bill into law that he said would protect business owners who didn’t want to provide services for same-sex weddings. In reality, it legalized discrimination against gay people.

For weeks, people on both sides of the political aisle warned him about the consequences. But he signed it anyway, surrounded by religious leaders who, like Pence, believe marriage is only for straight people. The backlash, which dealt a huge blow to the state’s reputation and economy, was so fierce that he had to soften the law’s language.

Pence swears he’s all about small government. But he signed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the nation, requiring women who have an abortion or a miscarriage to have a funeral for the fetus.

He also tried to start a state-run, taxpayer-funded “news” service to compete with local news outlets. “Just IN” is what his staff called it. Everyone else called it “Pravda on the Plains.”

It’s the kind of thinking that should pair nicely with Trump’s tendency to throw temper tantrums and revoke media credentials.

Pence loves to discuss how he’s fiscally conservative. It’s true, Indiana has a $2 billion budget surplus, but it was built on cuts in social services, which allowed one of the biggest HIV outbreaks in decades to erupt in a small town near the Kentucky border.

Through all of these major mistakes and minor gaffes, Pence has shown a startling lack of leadership and self-awareness. His talking points and ambition for higher office have earned him the nickname “empty suit” among even right-leaning Hoosiers.

There’s a reason Pence is neck-and-neck with a Democrat in his bid for re-election in a solidly red state. Just like there’s a reason “Pence Must Go” signs dot yards all over Indianapolis, the state capital and largest city.

There’s no doubt that Trump must go. But with Pence on his team, too, everyone needs to go – straight to the polls to make sure this team never makes it into the White House.