Opinion writer

Mike Pence speaks during the vice-presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., on Tuesday. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, gets credit for maintaining his composure in Tuesday night’s debate and demonstrating what a credible candidate — a sane, middle-of-the-road Republican — would have been able to do in a race against Hillary Clinton. So why should he be praised for running with a non-credible candidate whose comments are so objectionable that Pence had to deny they were ever said?

Mike Pence “won” in essence by pretending to be running with a candidate who never said the things Trump says and by never acknowledging Trump’s obnoxious positions (e.g. punishing a woman for having an abortion if abortion were illegal) and dangerous stances (e.g. genuflecting to Vladimir Putin). They call Trump a con man and a huckster, but is there anything worse than selling an unfit presidential candidate to the American people?

At one point, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) observed: “Six times tonight, I have said to Gov. Pence I can’t imagine how you can defend your running mate’s position on one issue after the next. And in all six cases, he’s refused to defend his running mate. … And yet he is asking everybody to vote for somebody that he cannot defend. And I just think that should be underlined.” So noted, Sen. Kaine.

The conventional wisdom nevertheless goes like this, according to BuzzFeed: “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.”

One has to marvel at the deeply entrenched cynicism that this widespread opinion reflects: Pence should be rewarded for his composed performance in support of a presidential candidate whose statements he could not defend and whose foreign policy he had to contradict.

While it may seem unfair, the Republicans who have fared the worst in the Trump debacle of 2016 are those who claim the moral and intellectual high ground — and yet sacrifice it all to insist that Trump is fit to be president. We have come to expect unhinged histrionics from Rudy Giuliani, insincerity from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and knee-jerk partisanship from nearly all elected Republicans. No big deal when they confirm our worst suspicions.

When, however, an intellectually serious person like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argues that Trump’s views (including protectionism, mass deportation, the addition of $5.3 trillion to the debt, obsequiousness to Russia, etc.) are in line with his and superior to Clinton’s, one’s respect for Ryan plummets. He’s willing to risk a president who believes none of the things Ryan does for the sake of party solidarity. This is not an admirable quality.

Likewise, when the deeply religious Pence shills for Trump by insisting that he is proud to run with Trump (and actually argues that Trump is sincerely pro-life), one comes away dismayed that Pence is willing to foist someone on the American people who exhibits contempt for Christian values (empathy, honesty, loyalty, humility) and possesses no real convictions on the life issue. In doing so, Pence convinces us that he is either 1) insincere in his defense of principles that his running mate would eviscerate or 2) a gullible fool. Pence’s devotion to fiscal sobriety and a resolute foreign policy does not seem all that authentic if he’s willing to work strenuously to elect the most fiscally irresponsible and daft commander in chief the party has ever nominated.

All those admiring of Pence’s performance, cheered by his positioning and enthusiastic about his chances in 2020 essentially tell us: Nothing matters. They all lie. Betrayal of one’s values and principles mean nothing. Leading the party to ruin comes without consequences.

No, Pence did not enhance his stature in our eyes for the presidency. He convinced us how bereft of intellectual and moral integrity are even the “best” Republicans. Republicans lauding him as the 2020 savior of the party betray a willingness to capitulate to the nihilism that has infected the GOP and produced a candidate like Trump.