Donald Trump’s veepstakes is over, and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has won.
The veepstakes is one of America’s odder political and journalist traditions. Everyone wants to know, as soon as possible, who will occupy a famously not-that-important job, and reporters eagerly sniff out leads even though the name will be publicly announced soon enough. Donald Trump, by leading an unusually interesting campaign, managed to also lead an unusually interesting search process.
And he made it interesting even though the ultimate selection ended up being about as dull as a Trump decision possibly could be — Pence is a Midwestern governor, a former member of the US House of Representatives, and basically a normal conservative Republican politician. He’s pretty good on TV, and though he clashed with GOP leaders in the House and tried a controversial Medicaid expansion as governor, he’s broadly seen as an orthodox conservative who is acceptable to all factions of the Republican Party. He’s such a consensus pick, in fact, that I used to think he’d be the presidential nominee.
The choice of Pence, though, shows Trump choosing a new direction for his distinctly unorthodox campaign. Pence was in part the result of an internal power struggle between members of Trump’s family and Paul Manafort, a veteran political professional who is running what exists of Trump’s political operation. As such, the Pence selection is part of an ongoing effort by at least one faction of the Trump campaign to try to normalize things — to build bridges with the party’s elected officials and donor class and run a reasonably normal campaign, albeit with a platform that amps up protectionism and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Here’s who wins and who loses with the Pence pick.
Loser: Chris Christie
Nobody on the entire planet has ever seemed thirstier for a vice presidential nod than Chris Christie since his endorsement of Trump. He hasn’t served as a key Trump surrogate or policy adviser. He doesn’t seem like someone Trump likes or respects. But he has all but abandoned his post as governor of New Jersey to traipse around the country, following Trump and appearing at his events.
They're going to make Christie set up the stage and hang the bunting. https://t.co/3b1dKtBIxE— Josh Barro (@jbarro) July 15, 2016
The effort has come at the expense of Christie’s public reputation. Four years ago, he keynoted the Republican National Convention and was seen as a true rising star in Republican politics — a guy who would win statewide in a blue state with only fairly modest gestures of substantive political moderation.
But a growing cloud of scandal around his handling of the Port Authority, plus New Jersey’s sluggish economy, has taken the sheen off his record. The early endorsement of Trump alienated other party leaders, and the sycophancy of his campaigning has led to widespread mockery. A New Yorker story even suggested that his campaign role is to pick up Trump’s McDonald’s order.
It’s been a staggeringly rapid fall from grace, and apparently all for nothing.
Loser: NeverTrump conservatives
For anyone who takes the fundamental problems with a Trump presidency seriously — his temperament, his authoritarianism, his racism — nothing about the prospect of Vice President Mike Pence should be particularly reassuring.
But to the large majority of Republican Party elected officials and party figures who didn’t particularly want him to be the nominee but now want to believe he’ll be an okay choice, the Pence pick is about as reassuring as you could ask for. It seems to indicate that Trump, if he wins, will go about staffing his administration in a more or less conventional manner, meaning that jobs, patronage, and influence should flow to all the right party people.
The upshot of that is that conservative holdouts with more fundamental doubts about Trump are now more isolated than ever. Pressure will be intense to get on the bandwagon or else to fundamentally break with the party and the movement. A more normal Trump is fundamentally more dangerous and more marginalizing to those who recognize that there’s still nothing particularly normal about him.
Loser: John Gregg
A Democrat running statewide in Indiana never wants to get too comfortable, but under the circumstances the former Indiana House speaker’s campaign to unseat Pence and become governor was in pretty good shape. Pence is not popular in his home state after years of controversies, and is regarded by most Hoosiers are markedly inferior to his Republican predecessor, Mitch Daniels.
Gregg, by contrast, is a well-liked and well-respected moderate Democrat who polls showed narrowly ahead of Pence.
But with Pence forbidden by Indiana law to run for VP and governor simultaneously, he won’t be on the ballot — giving the GOP a chance to put a fresher, more popular face in his place.
Winner: Donald Trump’s media domination
The Republican nominee is very, very, very good at getting media attention. He was good at it when he was a real estate developer and casino manager, and he remained good at it as he pivoted his career to reality television and personal brand licensing. This skill served him extremely well during the GOP primary, when he was up against a crowded field that created a situation where standing out per se was an advantage.
Trump’s problem is that his tactics for media domination often involved saying or doing things that made him look ridiculous or appalling.
The series of leaks, counter-leaks, and reversals built suspense and dominated political news for days without Trump needing to do anything particularly alienating or off-putting. He took a week when Hillary Clinton was hoping to launch some new attacks and turn the discussion away from her emails and made himself the center of attention.
Winner: Mike Pence
The chance to be the No. 2 on Donald Trump’s presidential ticket is not exactly the greatest prize in the history of American politics. But a week ago, Pence was an unpopular governor who’d fallen a bit out of step ideologically with the main currents in his party. Now he might be vice president. And if he becomes vice president, he might well become president some day. And even a failed vice presidential bid will greatly increase his name recognition and potentially his stature in the movement.
In some ways, the most interesting question about this is why so few of Pence’s fellow Republicans even seemed interested in the prize — senators like Bob Corker and Rob Portman and Govs. Susana Martinez and Nikki Haley explicitly took themselves out of the running, while other, more-popular-than-Pence Midwestern governors like Michigan’s Rick Snyder and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker simply never entered the conversation.
Several Republican governors, of course, aren’t endorsing Trump at all, which is obviously a perfectly good reason not to be his running mate. But for those who are, surely it’s better to be on the ticket than not. Yet out of the entire fairly vast field of more or less banal Republican Party elected officials, only Pence really seemed to want it.