Reprinted from the Press and Journal
The first round of 2016’s biggest rumble is over. Now it’s time for the ref to call the victor.
Who, of the major presidential candidates, has the best vice-presidential pick?
Donald Trump pivoted towards being a serious contender with his selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Hillary Clinton, suspecting that the American public doesn’t care for a strident progressive ticket, chose Tim Kaine, a U.S. senator from Virginia and its former governor.
Neither choice is sexy. Neither is out of left field or excitable as John McCain’s choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin in 2008. Both are calculated, comfortable, and all too snore-worthy.
But in this battle of torpor, I’ve gotta give a point to Clinton. Her Kaine left hook is no knockout punch, but it’s better than Trump’s limp-wristed Pencian jab.
Character-wise, the choices are similar. Each is a political veteran who cultivated the right contacts, took the correct positions, and performed in the roles necessary for the spot that’s one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Mike Pence began his career as a radio host, styling himself as a less-abrasive Rush Limbaugh. After being elected to Congress in 2000, Pence quickly made a name for himself as a conservative stalwart. A darling of D.C.’s conservative think tanks, he was a member of Republican leadership and head of the ideologically rigid Republican Study Committee.
Tim Kaine comes from a similar background. Not a pitchfork and torch radio instigator, Kaine’s first step into political life was another cliché: He was a civil rights lawyer who took fair housing cases and defended minorities against discrimination. From there he ran for a spot on the Richmond City Council. A mayorship, a lieutenant governorship, and a stay in the Governor’s Mansion later, Kaine is now second on a history-making presidential ticket.
So why do I think Kaine was the more favorable pick over Pence?
The explanation goes beyond personal merit. Vice presidential candidates are rarely picked for their accolades. Rather, they’re chosen to complement the ticket, bringing in swing voters who might otherwise vote for the other guy–or gal, as is the case this cycle.
Tim Kaine was deemed a “safe” pick by the Clinton campaign. A Roman Catholic and father of a Marine, Kaine is spotless (with the exception of some legal but questionable gift-taking as governor). His voting record is progressive, but not overly so. He speaks fluent Spanish from his time working at a Jesuit mission in Honduras, bringing a flavor of ethnicity to the all-white ticket.
Overall, Kaine comes off as a decent man and a Democrat foot soldier. His relative boringness is a nice contrast to Clinton’s scandal-littered opportunism.
Pence has been more or less an orthodox conservative throughout his career–that is, until spring of last year. As governor, Pence signed a bill—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—protecting the right of religious people to practice their faith in public. Opponents denounced the law as discriminatory, as it allowed faithful business owners to deny service to same-sex individuals if it conflicted with their deeply-held views. After national outcry from big business, Pence backed down, signing a revised measure that gutted the original bill. In the process, he alienated both social conservatives and GOP donors who hate the culture wars.
Pence’s trying-and-failing to have it both ways makes me suspect the Trump VP slot is his final chance for political relevancy. The RFRA debacle has made his reelection much tougher. He can no longer count on big-moneyed donors for support, or salt-of-the-earth Hoosiers for votes.
It’s Pence’s last stand. But the Donald’s reasoning for choosing him is not much better. That Trump needed a political veteran to bring gravitas to the ticket was a given. Selecting Pence was about more than finding an able governor with executive and legislative experience–it was an overture to professional conservatives who have rejected Trump every step of the way.
And it won’t work.
Already, the conservative intelligentsia is none-too-impressed with the Pence pick. The editors of the anti-Trump National Review declared the Indiana governor “cannot save Donald Trump from himself.” Blogger Erick Erickson criticized Pence for lacking “the courage of his convictions.” Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is suspicious that Pence won’t be as hawkish as he’d like.
With Pence, Trump extended an olive branch to the so-called conservative movement and had it snapped in half. Why he feels the need to please the same people who’ve burned him all along, I can’t fathom. By felling his 16 rivals, Trump kicked the pants in of Conservatism, Inc. He outwitted the PR experts, money-bundlers, direct-mail fraudsters, think tank bookworms, and digital scammers. The loose-tongued mogul would’ve been better off picking a seasoned outsider and continuing his populist pogrom of the consultant class.
The bell has rung on Round 1 of the presidential bout. With two men of talent in their respective corners, the ref gives this one to Team Clinton. By bowing down to the Beltway Right, Trump tarnished his brand of everyman politics. Like the Trump Taj, he gambled and lost. Sen. Kaine was a risk averse choice for Hillary, which will appeal to genial middle-class Americans turned off by the Clintons’ shady reputation. She gets what she wanted: broadened appeal.
Trump can still pull a Rocky and come back. Whether or not he will is a question that will wait until the debates.