Mike Pence wasn’t always particularly interested in leaping to the defense of Donald Trump during the vice presidential debate Tuesday. He was busy doing something else: offering a defense of the key themes of Trump’s campaign.
Tim Kaine, like Hillary Clinton before him, treated the debate as a referendum on the fitness of Donald Trump, as a human being, for office. That’s certainly a legitimate question, and there’s a lot of material there.
But Pence’s resistance to respond to Kaine’s attacks — what supporters of Clinton might see as his refusal to stand up for his candidate, and supporters of Trump might see as refusal to take the bait — was hardly an attempt to create a totally separate Republican platform or presidential campaign, or a reflexive snap back to the standard-issue conservatism of the pre-Trump Republican Party.
Pence offered up a vision that didn't hit the Trump campaign's ecstatic highs, but was better at quietly reassuring racial anxieties than the party's current standard-bearer. And while Democrats might be notably progressive on racial issues in 2016, it’s still totally unclear, after Tuesday’s debate, whether they think they could beat a party that put Trumpism in Pencian terms.
Pence appealed to the same anxieties Trump did — but dialed back the outlandish promises
When Pence talked about the issues that Trump has made his bread and butter — immigration, terrorism, race — he talked about them through Trump’s lens and in Trump’s terms. If you don’t have borders you don’t have a country. Islamic radicalization in Europe is proof that we shouldn’t allow Syrian refugees into the US. The real problem with race relations in America is bias against police officers.
The most revealing parts of Tuesday night’s debate were the occasions where Pence launched practiced attacks on Hillary Clinton — attacks that Donald Trump had gestured at briefly, in the first debate or in subsequent appearances, but hadn’t really prosecuted with any particular focus.
The Trump campaign clearly thinks that Clinton screwed up hugely by referring to half of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” — Trump’s tried to use that against Clinton himself, but it was Pence that gave the phrase enough gravity to make it seem like something he was genuinely upset about.
Likewise, Trump has glancingly criticized Hillary Clinton for saying during the first debate that everyone has some sort of implicit bias — but Pence turned it into an extended, bruised riff that articulated the feelings of a lot of white people who are told all their lives that racism is a horrible thing and then told suddenly that they too are racist.
Sometimes, Pence “fuzzed up” (in Kaine’s terms) some of Trump’s more specific promises — we have somehow gone two debates without anyone promising to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.
But as often as not, these were promises Trump himself hasn’t stated explicitly for quite some time. Trump has never officially disavowed either his promise to deport 16 million people (unauthorized immigrants and their children) from the US or his Muslim ban — but you’d have a tough time getting him to endorse either of them in so many words these days, either. In both cases, Trump’s since rolled out a policy plan that accomplishes many of the same objectives, and that he can fall back on whenever he’s asked about the outlandish promises he made during the primaries.
Pence simply rolled away the outlandish promises and stuck to the policies.
This approach has its limits: It jettisons some of the things that make Trump supporters so ecstatic about the candidacy of Donald Trump. Of course, some of Trump’s appeal is irreproducible — but a post-Trump GOP could try to ape the “anti-PC” boldness with which Trump expresses distrust of nonwhites.
That’s not what Pence did tonight. He didn’t articulate an “alt-right” conservatism. But he didn’t articulate a pre-Trump conservatism — the conservatism of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, a “post-racial” conservatism that dismisses any discussion of racial difference — either. He was identifying the same problems as Trump — threats from abroad and within — and the same priorities in fixing them. That’s a big shift from the doctrinaire conservatism of the last decade or two, with its focus on fiscal issues and sexual morality.
What Pence articulated is a law-and-order conservatism. It’s one in which support for “law enforcement” automatically wins a policy argument in the same way support for “the troops” did in 2003-vintage neoconservatism. (Trump has bragged a little about the endorsements he’s received from the Fraternal Order of Police and the unions representing Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; Pence bragged a bunch more.)
It’s not the conservatism of Trump’s biggest fans. But it’s the conservatism of a lot of people who feel a little bit uneasy about where their country might be going. And what Pence is betting is that there are more of those people than Trump’s current support may admit.
Pence hopes Democrats need Trump to make the race argument work for them
One of the most underappreciated phenomena of 2016 is this: Hillary Clinton has barely moved to the center during the general election. And in particular, she hasn’t tried to downplay the racial progressivism she employed in the primary.
You have to step back from contemporary racial politics to understand how weird this is. In the Black Lives Matter era, it’s unremarkable that the Democratic Party is a full-throated champion of racial-justice activism. It’s only barely remarkable that Clinton, in response to a question about whether police officers harbored implicit bias against black men, volunteered that everyone has some degree of implicit bias. This has quickly become an element of faith among not only activists, but of a major political party.
But it’s extremely hard to imagine any Democratic nominee since George McGovern (with the possible, but not definite, exception of Barack Obama) saying anything of the sort. Bill Clinton made a point of distancing himself from the black left in order to win over the white center. Even Obama played “respectability politics” in chiding African Americans, in a way that could reassure white Americans that the problems in American race relations weren’t all on them.
The question is this: Has the median American voter has moved so far to the left on race in the last decade that she won’t get upset by the implication that America’s race problem runs so deep it probably includes her? (Democrats only other option is mastering the art of mobilization of nonwhite voters so thoroughly that they can change where the median voter is by changing the population of voters — a much tougher battle.)
Or is it just that Donald Trump, short-tempered and Twitter-fingered as he is, is such an anomaly that he liberates Democrats from the task of moderating their own message?
Mike Pence, by all appearances, believes the latter: that there is a large population of people who really don’t like being called racist but who, for Trump-specific reasons, don’t like Trump.
It’s not that Tim Kaine (or Clinton, or other Democrats) can’t defend their racial ideology. At least during the section on implicit bias — one of the clearest, most honest segments of the night — Kaine showed he was willing to address the meat of what Pence was saying.
But it’s not clear that Kaine (or Clinton, or other Democrats) think that those defenses will persuade enough of the American public. Kaine wasn’t satisfied simply to offer an explanation of what implicit bias actually is, and how it manifests itself in criminal justice. He felt the need to pivot to a riff on Donald Trump’s insults, and all the things the Republican nominee hasn’t apologized for.
The political theory behind what Mike Pence was doing Tuesday night — the theory behind the new law-and-order conservatism — is that without Donald Trump to pivot to, Democrats won’t win the argument on race with “mainstream” America.
We may never find out if this theory is right. The GOP has a lot of directions it could go after Trump. Democrats may, in fact, start running to the center on race once they don’t have Trump to run against. Heck, President Trump could win the 2016 election, freezing the parties in their 2016 positions for some time to come.
But for just a second, on Tuesday night, as Kaine turned an argument about racism into an argument about Trump, it was a vision of a post-Trump Republican Party that both Kaine and Pence seemed to share.