FARMVILLE, Virginia — Mike Pence is running for vice president on Donald Trump’s ticket. But his debate performance on Tuesday seemed to occur in a bizarre alternate universe where some normal establishment Republican is the nominee.
Pence gave a solid, smooth performance that heartened some wary conservatives. But there was a sense of cognitive dissonance as he delivered line after line that could have been applied to a hypothetical Mitt Romney candidacy, instead of his own running mate's.
Pence broke with Trump on Russia, characterizing Vladimir Putin — whom Trump has repeatedly praised as a strong leader — as a “small and bullying leader.” He avoided directly defending some of Trump’s most controversial statements, instead focusing on Hillary Clinton and at times shaking his head when Tim Kaine recited things Trump has said, indicating that Trump hasn’t really said them. He talked at length about his belief in the anti-abortion cause. He spoke of cutting spending, reducing deficits, and preserving a soluble Social Security, causes that have defined small-government Republicans in recent years, but hardly animate Trump’s campaign.
In the spin room after the debate, surrogates for Trump and Pence defended or downplayed the obvious distance between the candidates.
“Donald Trump did not bring in a clone of himself to be his running mate like Hillary Clinton did,” said Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling. He said he thinks “it’s a healthy thing to occasionally have some disagreements with your candidate.”
Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo disputed the idea that the nominee and his running mate have different positions on Russia.
“On Russia, I think that Trump and Pence were right together,” Pompeo said, adding that there is “not a sliver” of daylight between the two.
“I don’t know whether he would use that words or not,” Sen. Jeff Sessions said when asked if Trump agrees with Pence’s “small, bullying” characterization of Putin. Sessions said that Trump’s praise for Putin has simply been “to say that he’s been an effective leader for his people.”
During the debate, Kaine listed several controversial or offensive things Trump has said, including his comments about Mexicans being rapists and his referring to women in crude, sexist terms. Pence said Kaine had launched an “avalanche of insults” and said “if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you've said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables.” But Pence did not explicitly defend Trump’s comments. And eventually, after being pressed by Kaine on Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Pence accused him of “whipping out that Mexican thing again” — showing how little he wanted to deal with the substance of the remarks.
“Mike Pence is asked every single day to defend Donald Trump, he does that, he’s on the ticket with him,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told reporters.
By creating some space between himself and Trump, Pence positions himself better for a potential presidential run in 2020 if Trump loses. And his performance underscored the way he has, since being chosen as the running mate, run a kind of parallel campaign to Trump’s that has seemed at times like an unconnected effort.
His performance tonight impressed some anti-Trump conservatives who have still not endorsed Trump, including Erick Erickson, who tweeted, “I must retract my prior tweet from months ago about Pence being disqualified in 2020 by saying yes to Trump. He's really redeemed himself.” But it’s unclear whether it will be enough to bring the last stragglers on board.
“Heck no,” Erickson told BuzzFeed News in an email when asked if Pence’s performance could change his view on Trump. “But it does make me think I can’t dismiss Pence outright for 2020.”
“I just have to imagine Pence realizes that he needs to be a loyal lieutenant without coming away with the stench so many others have. See, e.g., Christie, Giuliani, etc.,” Erickson said.
Rick Wilson, another anti-Trump conservative who is working on independent candidate Evan McMullin’s campaign, also told BuzzFeed News that Pence didn’t change his mind about Trump despite giving a good performance.
“He was more polished and disciplined than Kaine, but I don't think there was a lot of conversion left to do. Both men are burdened by shitty running mates,” Wilson said.