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Tuesday’s VP debate will shed light on something incredibly important

Mike Pence

No vice presidential debate has ever meaningfully altered the outcome of a presidential election, so it’s understandable that few are thrilled to see the showdown between Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

But don’t listen to anyone who says the event will be boring simply because it lacks the fireworks associated with the Donald Trump Show. On the contrary, Pence versus Kaine will offer us an unusually extended glimpse at one of the most fascinating, significant, and undercovered dynamics of the 2016 presidential election — the mainstream Republican Party’s attitude toward Donald Trump.

Mainstream Republicans’ views of Trump have been scanted in favor of two more telegenic, if much smaller, factions of the GOP in news coverage:

  1. The relatively small number of Republicans who are enthusiastic about Trump have obtained outsize prominence thanks to the dictates of conventional journalism, especially on television, that require there to be two sides to every argument. CNN even sidelined its regular stable of conservative commentators in favor of a new crew of formerly obscure Trumpkins led by Jeffrey Lord. Trump’s key surrogates — guys like Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Christie — have become ubiquitous.
  2. The other side getting lots of airtime is the faded ranks of outright Trump opponents in the Republican party — Mitt Romney, the two Presidents Bush, Sens. Mike Lee and Ben Sasse — who have all garnered a fair amount of attention on basic man-bites-dog grounds.

But neither of these factions is especially large or influential.

The broad Republican Party — a critically important American political institution that controls both houses of Congress along with the vast majority of governors’ mansions, state legislatures, and other state offices — has taken a very different tack. The mainstream GOP supports Trump’s candidacy 100 percent, without hesitation or equivocation.

They’re not out there making the case for Trump, repeating his talking points, or defending his wild behavior. Instead, they’re mostly lying low, with everyone from House Speaker Paul Ryan on down to lowly freshman representatives like Bruce Poliquin trying as hard as they can to basically avoid talking about Trump.

Mike Pence is Trump’s bridge to the GOP

The man the Republican Party is willing to talk about is Mike Pence.

As Burgess Everett and Matthew Nussbaum recently reported for Politico, “[John] McCain’s willingness to talk Pence but dodge on Trump is shared broadly among his fellow Capitol Hill Republicans and reflects a genuine excitement about the Indiana governor who could be vice president.”

Not only do mainstream Republicans like Pence personally, they are also essentially pinning their hopes that a Trump administration would work out okay with Pence on board. Trump is not the man congressional Republicans really want to see in the White House, but they would like to see someone in the White House who will sign their bills — and that person is not going to be Hillary Clinton.

Consequently, they have strong psychological incentives to think up optimistic scenarios about a Trump presidency, and Pence features heavily in them. “Capitol Hill Republicans believe Pence could be their man in the White House,” Everett and Nussbaum write, “a liaison they’re hoping would bend the nominee toward the conservative agenda they’re hoping for — and make the pride-swallowing they’ve done to back a man who spent the primary belittling them worth it after all.”

Interestingly, even though Pence himself is on the ticket, he has not emerged as a major Trump surrogate. Pence is out there on the campaign trail day in and day out, but you don’t see him talking about Alicia Machado or Monica Lewinsky. Instead, he’s criticizing Clinton and talking about the conservative policy agenda.

Like the mainstream Republican he is, Pence is eager to beat Clinton but not that eager to go full Trump.

Mike Pence is going to have to talk about Trump

But Pence can’t just dodge the elephant in the room forever.

He needs to get up onstage with Tim Kaine and talk for 90 minutes about the presidential election. He’s going to need to speak, in detail, about the issues in the Clinton-Trump race — of which Trump’s erratic and offensive conduct is a major one.

When Pence speaks on Tuesday, he’ll be speaking not just on behalf of himself but on behalf of a broad mainstream tendency in Republican Party circles. We know that normal, ideologically orthodox conservative elected officials think Trump should be president of the United States. But to a striking extent, we haven’t heard whether they think it’s appropriate for a president to be tweeting about sex tapes, suggesting Mexicans can’t serve as federal judges, or musing out loud about abrogating NATO and leaving much of Eastern Europe open to Russian conquest.

Is it okay that we have no idea what Trump’s personal finances look like? That he lies all the time? That he routinely mistreats women?

The greatest trick Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the leaders of the NRCC and RSCC ever pulled off was getting their people through a months-long campaign season without really addressing these issues. But Pence will have to face these questions on a much higher-profile platform than a Capitol Hill scrum, and he’ll face them from people who don’t need to worry about their long-term sourcing relationships. It will be fascinating to watch.

Trump’s relationship with the GOP is a critical issue

But watching a mainstream Republican Party politician need to answer for Trump at some length won’t just be interesting — it will be important. Because the simple fact of the matter is that for all that most GOP elected officials have distanced themselves from Trump, their support for him has been integral to his campaign’s strength.

That’s true on the level of mass opinion, where basic party loyalty has proven to put a relatively high floor on Trump’s numbers, but it’s also true in a concrete, tactical way.

  • Senate Republicans, for example, are holding a Supreme Court seat and dozens of lower court judgeships open for Trump to fill by blocking Barack Obama’s nominees. That itself constitutes a deep testimony to their faith in Trump’s judgment, as well as a means of raising the stakes for rank-and-file conservatives so they feel they have to swallow their doubts and get behind Trump.
  • Senate Democrats have introduced a Presidential Tax Transparency Act that would turn the informal tradition of presidential tax disclosure into a legal requirement — thus forcing Trump to cough up information about whom he is in debt to, whom he donates money to, and how much he earns — but Senate Republicans are helping Trump by blocking it.

This pattern of quiet mainstream Republican collaboration with Trump combined with silence on his Trumpiest aspects has been the central reality of the 2016 campaign. When Kaine and Pence debate tonight, it will be on full display for the first — and likely only — time.