Running mates are supposed to be attack dogs, saying the mean things beneath the dignity of the presidential contender.
But in the two weeks since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joined the GOP ticket, he has spent much of his time mopping up his boss’s many messes.
When Donald Trump insulted the grieving parents of Humayan Khan, a Muslim American Army captain killed in Iraq by suicide bombers, Pence was quick to tell everyone what the Republican presidential nominee really meant: Khan is a hero, but this is about the war on terror.
Not two hours after Donald Trump tweeted that Russia should track down Hillary Clinton’s “missing” 30,000 emails, Pence swooped in to massage the message, directing attention to the Democratic National Committee and away from the presidential nominee’s questionable call for Putin to engage in espionage.
And in an attempt to calm the waters with Republican Party leadership, Pence endorsed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for his reelection bid Wednesday — just one day after Trump publicly praised Ryan’s opponent and said of endorsing the speaker: “I’m not quite there yet.”
Though it was a nearly unprecedented act, a vice presidential nominee deviating from the position of the presidential nominee, Pence said he got Trump’s blessing first. It was a way for the ticket to endorse Ryan, even if the man at the top of the ticket wasn’t saying it yet.
I strongly support Paul Ryan and endorse his re-election….. pic.twitter.com/oYBLzeLbBz
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) August 4, 2016
Analysts who have followed Pence’s political career describe the man as affable, a politician who sticks to the message and is a sophisticated spin doctor. Those traits make Pence especially qualified for the job as Trump’s running mate.
But it’s a potentially high-risk undertaking, and a role that has already earned Pence some unflattering campaign nicknames.
Trump’s “apologist-in-chief,” CNN called him. The Indianapolis Star chose the phrase “clarifier-in-chief.” And Dan Shea, a professor of government at Colby College, put it like this: “He has gone from attack dog to pooper scooper.”
Trump is this campaign’s attack dog, not Pence, Shea said, putting the governor in a position no vice presidential contender has ever been in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before,” Shea said. “A fundamental criteria is that he or she would do no harm, but in this case it’s completely flipped. It’s how much harm [Pence] can absorb.”
It’s a job with unknown consequences for Pence’s future, especially as Trump’s numbers drop and his comments seem to grow more bizarre. But it was Pence’s only option to break onto the national stage.
Pence has spent four years as governor of Indiana eyeing the White House, said Indiana University political science professor Marjorie Hershey, and he earned a reputation as someone not highly engaged with day-to-day state politics.
“People in the state house clearly saw Pence laying the groundwork for a presidential bid,” Hershey said.
But that plan flamed out leading up to the 2016 presidential primaries, when he received scorn not just statewide, but nationally, for his Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said empowered business owners to deny service for religious reasons — for example, if they didn’t want to serve a gay couple. Activists and large companies condemned the legislation. The NCAA, headquartered in Indianapolis, threatened to cancel future events.
— Governor Mike Pence (@GovPenceIN) March 26, 2015
After Pence signed a new strict abortion law, women began emailing and calling his office to tell the governor all about their monthly flow.
They called the movement “Periods for Pence.”
When his hopes for the presidency fizzled, Pence faced an uphill gubernatorial reelection battle, said Hershey. He was slated to face Democrat John Gregg again after defeating him in 2012 in a race that was closer than expected.
“Losing the governor’s path here would have done some substantial damage to his viability” as a potential presidential candidate, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
And even if he was reelected, Downs said, Pence faced the difficult challenge of turning his Midwest state into one worth national attention. Governor of Indiana is not a high-profile job, he said.
“Things were looking pretty grim for that hope for the last couple of years, until the Trump nomination,” Hershey said. “This was his second chance at the brass ring.”
The challenge Pence faces now is learning how to balance his many roles as Trump’s running mate: the clarifications, the spinning, the enticing of the religious and socially conservative Republican base. If he succeeds, Downs said, he could gain national recognition and the favor of the GOP party leadership. On the other hand, he could come off looking like Trump’s fool.
“I think that he’ll be forever tagged as Donald Trump’s running mate,” Shea said. “That is something that will be with him the rest of his political career.”
He added: “It is a wild bull, what he is trying to hold onto. My guess is that it doesn’t end well.”
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