On Wednesday afternoon, Mike Pence, Donald Trump and their respective entourages strode onto Cleveland’s grassy mall. Trump spoke twice, before and after introducing his running mate Pence, who stood next to him dutifully.
In a short time, Pence has perfected this role.
Trump’s running mate fashions himself a revolutionary, but in reality, he’s a team player.
Elected to Congress in 2000 on a platform of staunch conservatism, Pence quickly became an agitator and irritant to Republican leadership in the House. As the chairman of a group of the most conservative members, the Republican Study Committee, Pence was the pebble in then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s shoe.
He fought tooth and nail on spending—a particular badge of honor in the aftermath of the 2006 election, when Democrats took over the House in the wake of spending and sex scandals that rocked House Republicans.
But after his failed bid to unseat John Boehner as the party’s leader in 2006 (he received fewer than 30 votes), he settled in as the Conference Chair in 2008, which made him the fourth-ranking Republican in the House.
He then performed as a good soldier until he abandoned Congress to run for governor and won in 2012.
Even as governor he was never truly alone. As he signed the bill into law that essentially made discrimination against the LGBT legal in his state, three of the most anti-LGBT activists stood behind him, visible over his shoulder like vultures. (The move cost the state up to $60 million as a dozen conventions pulled their business, and cost Pence his own presidential ambitions.)
Nearly a year and a half later, Pence—who’d originally backed Sen. Ted Cruz in the party’s presidential contest—stood on the convention stage Wednesday night, shortly after Cruz was booed off it for refusing to endorse Trump, in the unlikeliest of circumstances: as the running mate of a former reality television star.
Four days after the most botched VP rollout in memory and three days after appearing to be Trump’s ventriloquist dummy during a disastrous interview on 60 Minutes, Pence got to use his own words to describe his sudden ardor for a man who is basically his polar opposite.
No, really. Ask anyone.
Their blood isn’t even the same temperature.
The former conservative warrior praised the former tabloid darling who was in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, who filed for bankruptcy four times and swindled unsuspecting consumers of his faux institute of higher learning, Trump University.
“Donald Trump gets it,” Pence said.
“He’s the genuine article. He’s a doer in a game usually reserved for talkers. And when Donald Trump does his talking, he doesn’t tiptoe around a thousand new rules of political correctness,” Pence said. “He’s his own man, distinctly American. And where else would an independent spirit like his find a following than in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The funny thing is, you know, the funny thing is, the party in power seems helpless to figure out our nominee.”
It’s not just the other party.
Pence might be hard pressed to figure out Trump’s “real” feelings on any number of issues he’s spent his political career defending.
On abortion, it took Trump several do-overs to settle on an incomprehensible view of an issue Pence has spoken passionately on for years.
In March 2016, Pence signed a bill that—among other things—restricted women from having abortions if the fetus was found to have disabilities.
Pence has long spoken of the importance of America’s alliance with Israel; his running mate has alternated insults and incoherence.
Not only did Trump tell attendees at the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015 that he was “ a negotiator like you folks,” and that their money wouldn’t influence them—he also said he was “neutral” on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
“Donald Trump will confront radical Islamic terrorism at its source and destroy the enemies of our freedom,” Pence said, heroically repeating Trump’s talking points. “And if the world knows nothing else, it will know this—America stands with Israel.”
When Pence finished speaking Wednesday night, Trump came up to him on stage, the mogul’s lips puckered and one hand around his running mate’s back. Pence kept his face away, and Trump settled for an air kiss.
That may be the closest the governor has come to asserting himself with his unlikely new senior partner.
It’s not that Mike Pence doesn’t have principles. But, like most politicians, he’s now proven willing to put them on the shelf in the name of ambition.