I have never been quite so confused as to how to interpret a vice presidential debate. Let’s say Mike Pence shows up and crushes Tim Kaine. Unambiguously. Totally.
Then what? What are we supposed to think about that?
The message of recent VP picks is “this guy is going to influence me.” The appeal of having Paul Ryan roaming Mitt Romney’s White House was that he would push Romney toward a more stringent economic conservatism. The idea behind putting Joe Biden next to Barack Obama was that the Scranton native would be a voice for the middle class and a fount of wisdom about world affairs and Senate procedure. The reason conservatives were comforted to see Dick Cheney stand with George W. Bush was that the seasoned elder conservative would help guide his inexperienced partner’s administration.
But no one believes Mike Pence has Donald Trump’s ear. If Trump were listening to Pence, he wouldn’t have done any of the things he did over the past week. If Trump had added Pence to the ticket as part of a pivot toward a more Pence-style doctrinaire conservatism, then he would have made that pivot months ago.
Trump isn’t even using Pence as a prime surrogate: He’s sending out sycophants like Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich — the guys who have his back and will deliver even his strangest self-justifications with a smile.
Pence’s purpose on the ticket is as Trump’s ambassador to the Republican Party. It’s Pence who keeps GOP heavyweights like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell hopeful that a Trump win might lead to a conservative presidency. But Pence’s role in the Trump campaign is that of a salesman, not a strategist or close adviser — no one believes Trump is relying on the genial, generic Midwestern conservative for guidance.
Trump himself has been at pains to signal his disinterest in Pence’s advice. When he introduced Pence as his running mate, he stood at a podium without Pence’s name on it, talked about himself for 28 minutes, and walked off the stage as soon as Pence walked onto it. Trump’s inability to let his running mate hold even a moment of spotlight to himself continues to this day. He’s promised, amazingly, to live-tweet tonight’s debate:
I will be watching the great Governor @Mike_Pence and live tweeting the VP debate tonight starting at 8:30pm est! Enjoy!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2016
The message has long been clear: Pence may be useful to Trump, but he’s an employee, and not a particularly valued one at that.
Which brings us back to the debate. Let’s say Pence turns in a strong performance tonight. What is that supposed to prove? That Republicans had better, more popular options than Donald Trump, and should have nominated one of them? That a more generic Republican campaign would outperform Trump’s traveling circus? That there’s someone, somewhere, who could be a good influence on Trump, if only Trump would listen to him, which he won’t?
The debate will be interesting to watch on its own terms, and, with two presidential nominees who will be in their 70s, important because either of these men could end up as president unexpectedly. But in terms of the broader narrative of the election, Pence mostly serves as a visitor from a parallel universe, here to remind the Republican Party of the kind of candidate they could have nominated, but didn’t.