Trump keeps Mike Pence under the radar and out of the loop

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Donald Trump keep each other at arm’s length.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Donald Trump keep each other at arm’s length. AP

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the dog days of August, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence came to Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, a state the Republican presidential ticket has almost no chance of winning.

The vice-presidential nominee went through the standard conservative applause lines — gun rights, law and order and judges who will protect the right to life. He then ticked off the bill of particulars against Hillary Clinton — Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, asking “hardworking Americans” to pay for big government programs. Pence is blessedly bland — what you get after pressing “1” for English. He happily intones his usual line, “We do well to remember a simple truth, one that I was raised on, and that is that there will always be more in America that unites us than will ever divide us.“

And who would disagree except, perhaps, Pence’s running mate, the guy at the top of the ticket? Donald Trump is the reason folks came to see Pence but he’s not central to Pence’s presentation. Pence and Trump rarely campaign together. If Trump is Lewis Black, Pence is Mr. Rogers rambling on about how a bill becomes a law. He sticks largely to what he would be talking about anyway: protecting coal, gun rights, expanding the military and honoring his Irish-American father who drove a bus for 40 years. Pence doesn’t need to be normalized.

He is Everyman. If one of the shuttle vans to satellite parking got a flat, you could see Pence changing the tire.

When Pence talks about Trump, it’s as if he’s his imaginary friend, a plainspoken “Negotiator-in-Chief” who will run government (small) like the efficient business it should be. He doesn’t refer to the fact that the dealmaker spent the prior week laying down a fog of confusion about one of the centerpieces of the campaign, a proposal to deport undocumented immigrants. There were no minorities to be seen, and he doesn’t bring up the Great Negotiator’s recent effort to reach out to black voters by painting a description of the hellish lives they supposedly lead in the war zones Democratic rule has relegated them to.

There’s little red meat, but the crowd is happy enough to be there. This is as close as they are going to get to the Big Guy since the ticket is running up to 17 points behind in Virginia. Pence acknowledges the elephant who isn’t in the room. “I’m not The Man,” he said. “I’m a B-list Republican celebrity,” adding “But you all are kind to be here today.”

From the moment the No. 2 awkwardly turned his head as Trump puckered up for a kiss at the Republican National Convention, Pence has been less traditional attack dog than Trump’s anger translator, compensating for the top dog when he goes rogue. When Trump criticized the Muslim-American parents of Captain Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq, Pence said they “should be cherished.” Trump won’t release his tax returns, Pence said his would be forthcoming. Sometimes words escape him. Pence LOL’d when a reporter repeated Trump’s boast that he would eventually win 95 percent of black voters. That was before Trump expressed no sympathy for NBA star Dwyane Wade’s cousin shot down in Chicago while pushing her 3-week-old baby’s stroller. Instead, his first instinct was to Tweet out what it meant for him: “Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!”

And so it goes. Presidential tickets often resemble arranged marriages: the husband and wife don’t know each other and hope that their parents are right that they have a lot in common and that love will flourish in time.

In this case, it’s barely a merger, much less a marriage. When the door closes to figure out what the campaign needs to do or how to prepare for the debates, Pence is not in the room and may be out of the loop.

It’s easy to see why Trump chose Pence. There weren’t that many clamoring for the job. On the short list, Newt Gingrich was too mercurial. Even Trump knows one Trump is enough. Trump and his wife, Melania, were most comfortable with Governor Chris Christie, but his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner put the kibosh on that. As New Jersey’s attorney general, Christie sent Kushner’s father to prison.

Pence was the last man standing. He would add discipline but would never upstage Trump (when he introduced his running mate, the Donald spoke for almost a half hour before mentioning his name). Pence has governing chops tempered by tea-party anti-establishment cred for challenging John Boehner for the House speakership in 2006.

Most important, Pence provides social, cultural and family values balance. He is a conservative, church-going, Bible-reading, long-married Midwesterner with the hair God gave him. With Pence, voters know there will be an adult in the White House.

What’s less easy to understand is why Pence accepted the job. The governor was facing a tough race for re-election in Indiana having brought congressman’s experience to the statehouse. Compared with the stellar performance of his predecessor, Mitch Daniels, he fell short. He made unforced errors such as a taxpayer-funded news service that critics dubbed “Pravda on the Plains.” His biggest blunder was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which guaranteed businesses the right, for instance, to refuse to bake a cake with a groom-and-groom on top, if it violated their faith. It caused the NCAA, Bruce Springsteen and Paypal to boycott the state. Pence signed a “fix” but not before his approval rating dropped 15 points.

Those who came to hear Pence in Virginia are not hurting. Loudon County is prosperous, with huge houses on large lots, late-model cars, pet boutiques dotting the shopping centers and household income double the national median.

But what drew them to the event wasn’t how they are but how they feel. They share the resentment of the core Trump voter that they work hard and play by the rules but subsidize those who don’t.

With Republicans abandoning Trump on principle, it’s hard to see what Pence has to gain from all of this. He’s not likely to be first in line next time around or move up to the A-list of celebrities. He may avoid an embarrassing loss in Indiana but lose something else. He signed on to a campaign beyond the usual norms. However hard he tries to keep his own counsel — and distance — he’ll be remembered for his association with Trump forever.