Matt Tully has been my go-to for all things Indiana for as long as I can remember. He's the political columnist at the Indianapolis Star and a Hoosier State native. So when Donald Trump formally named Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his VP pick Friday morning, I reached out to Matt to get the inside story on the governor. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: How surprising is it that Pence wound up as Trump’s VP pick? When did you first hear about the possibility? And what did you make of it when you heard it?
Tully: It's very surprising if you go back to April, when he endorsed Trump's opponent, Ted Cruz, in the days leading up to the Indiana primary. And it is also surprising if you look at how proudly Pence has worn his religion and conservatism on his sleeve over the years. Given that, the idea of him teaming up with Trump would have seem far-fetched.
On the other hand, Trump actually seemed flattered by the wishy-washy way Pence endorsed Cruz; as Trump said, it almost sounded like he was the one being endorsed. So in the end, it looks like Pence threaded that needle pretty well.
We'd long considered Pence a possible VP short-lister for other candidates, particularly Cruz, but the Trump buzz arrived relatively late. My initial reaction was twofold. First, it seemed strange that a Republican governor struggling to win reelection in Indiana was possibly moving up. On the other hand it made sense, as he seems to appeal to a part of the GOP that Trump has not completely sold and because he has so many close relationships with GOP officeholders, leaders and donors.
FIX: Go through Pence’s biggest strengths as a politician.
Tully: He is usually a good communicator and can stick to a message as well as anyone. He does very well one on one; even his fiercest critics (well, many of them) will tell you what a nice guy he is. When he has kept his focus on pragmatic issues (jobs, roads, education), he has generally performed well.
FIX: Now, his weaknesses.
Tully: He cannot help himself when it comes to veering into social issues and ideological distractions. It has cost him, and Indiana, time and again. His biggest weakness as governor was that he never really had a vision for the job and he struggled mightily to unlearn traits that might have helped in Congress but do not help when it comes to being a nuts-and-bolts executive.
FIX: Most people nationally have no clue about Pence outside of — maybe — his less-than-perfect handling of the religious freedom bill. From a policy perspective, what has his impact been on Indiana over the last four years?
Tully: His term in many ways was a status quo continuation of the Mitch Daniels era, and he benefited from the economic and fiscal climate he inherited. He's kept spending under control, continued to expand school choice policies and created a much-needed preschool pilot program. Despite his fierce criticism of Obamacare, his administration worked out a Medicaid expansion program with the federal government. Both liberals and conservatives had problems with the plan, but it was probably the Pence administration at its best.
He also signed a very controversial abortion bill, unwisely battled members of his own party who wanted to invest more in infrastructure and spiked a much broader preschool grant application supported by a vast array of people in education and government.
FIX: Finish this sentence: Mike Pence took the VP job because he ____________. Now, explain.
Tully: "was always more comfortable on the national stage."
A former congressman, Pence is a creature of Washington. That is where his closest allies and advisers are, and his skills as a talking-point communicator and as a partisan fighter fit well on Capitol Hill. They are not particularly beneficial in the more pragmatic role of governor. Time and again, he was most energized by social-issue debates and broader national issues, such as his fight to bar Syrian refugees, than on the day-to-day issues facing a state.