Meet Mike Pence, the man who has to make Donald Trump electable
What a ticket
CLEVELAND – Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and Donald Trump’s brand new running mate, walked into a cauldron of ill feeling.
This evening – the third night of the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio – was supposed to be a roll-call of Republican big beasts endorsing Trump and pulling their warring factions behind the nominee.
The robotic Scott Walker did his bit. So did Newt Gingrich, who has been loyal to Trump for months. Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, offered his homage, as did Marco Rubio, albeit lukewarmly and by video link.
And then Ted Cruz didn’t. As the audience in the Quicken Loans Arena realized Cruz was going to withhold his endorsement – cutely mincing his words, calling for viewers to “vote your conscience” – boos broke out, as did chants of “keep your pledge”.
Welcome to frontline Republican politics in 2016, Mike.
Pence is 57, but he looks at least a decade older than that. It could be the bitter battles he’s fought with liberals for decades over abortion and taxes and right of business owners to refuse the custom of gay patrons. It could be his follicles and face lines telling us: this guy’s politics belong to someone born in the thirties or forties, not the summer of 1959.
Pence is a politician “deeply and proudly out of sync with his times,” as the New York Times put it last week – a man who does and says stuff that other conservatives have stopped doing and saying because it puts off voters outside the hardcore: clearing cigarettes of responsibility for cancer, arguing against basic bits of federal spending.
“I never thought I’d be standing here,” he joked when he got up, believably. He got his endorsement in early, congratulating Trump for having “brought millions of new people into the party” – prompting a Clevelander on the floor next to me to remark “And lost a whole bunch too.”
Mike Pence brings a lot of things to the Republican ticket that Donald Trump does not: small-town Pence to the New Yorker Trump. Social-conservative-to-the-point-of-insanity Pence to Trump, the louche, inconsistent opportunist. Politically experienced Pence to newcomer Trump. Halfway through his speech he threw shade at the “tiny intellectual elite” that rules America – a Reagan line.
Also old-fashioned is Pence’s gentle delivery. He does a folksy thing of tilting his head back and smiling like a proud grandfather at a barn dance. He has a side smile in his repertoire of kindly looks, and sparkly eyes. “Kind of a babe” as a girl I met in Arizona labeled him on Snapchat.
He doesn’t punch out every word like Walker or signpost every gag five minutes before it pays off, like Cruz does. He speaks in traditional tonal arcs. He varies his pace. He alters volume. He’s not an automaton, or one of those conservatives who embarrassingly mimics the cadence of a preacher.
The intellectual theme of Pence’s endorsement is not that Trump is a great conservative (Pence, and everyone else, knows he isn’t) but that he’s won – that he’s beaten the odds and shaken things up. He describes Trump as “the outsider”. He calls Hillary “The secretary of the status quo”, an alright gag, though any Hillary gag will do with this crowd, pathological haters.
Unlike Cruz or Rubio, big stars of the GOP for years now, Pence is new to this kind of stage.
Among liberals in Indiana, especially young liberals, he is the devil. “He’s the worst, and and the main reason I’m embarrassed to be from Indiana,” Kelseigh Anne Ingram, a student at Indiana University, told me before he got up. What was her reaction on discovering that he could be a heartbeat from the presidency come January? “Pure rage”.
To the rest of America, he’s the guy who got into hot water about an anti-gay law last year – the villain of a few liberal media news cycles.
This week last year Mr Mike Pence was doing llama limbo (!) in his state.
As recently as July 5th, he was a guy who tweeted about enjoying the corn dogs at Indiana county fairs and got seven retweets.
And got involved in pictures like this.
Now he’s talking to 20,000 Republicans and millions back home and making lofty promises like: “We will win the hearts and minds of the American people.”
Trump-Pence feels like a hearts ticket, less so a minds one. But Trump, particularly after Cruz’s mic-drop tonight, could have expected to struggle with the crucial minds of conservative middle America. Mike Pence can help with that.