Mike Pence’s speech Wednesday night was a model for how a vice presidential nominee should use his first star turn on the national stage. He introduced himself with humility and humor, he praised the presidential nominee effectively and he launched solid barbs at the political opposition.
But in Pence’s case his speech was overshadowed by the earlier appearance of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump’s chief rival in the primaries. Cruz gave an inspirational speech that harkened back to Ronald Reagan’s 1976 speech to GOP delegates at the convention that nominated Gerald Ford. But Cruz chose not to take Reagan’s approach and call for the ticket’s victory. Instead, he emulated Ted Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic convention –who chose not to mention the need for voters to elect his rival, Jimmy Carter.
Pence knew he had cleanup work to do after Cruz’s non-endorsement. He did his best to remove the sting by saying: "I'm a conservative Christian who likes our nominee and can deliver a good speech.”
Delegates I spoke with after the convention went further and said Pence’s speech was a home run. “He was fluid, on point and unifying,” Robert Rabon, the chair of the South Carolina Republican Party in Myrtle Beach, told me.
Pence’s speech energized delegates, reached out to independents and presented Trump in a more favorable light than even the candidate usually does.
But Pence was also speaking to people in the TV audience who have no affiliation with the Republican Party.
"I started out in the other party until I heard the voice of the 40th president and I joined the Reagan Revolution,” he said. He noted that union members, coal miners and family values Democrats have been abandoned by the Democratic Party. So too are struggling middle-class families, he claimed, whose wages have been stagnant under the Obama administration. “We are told this economy is the best we can do,” he said. “That isn’t true, it’s merely the best THEY can do.”
Then Pence turned his attention to Hillary Clinton. He savaged her over her performance during and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks in 2012. “It was Hillary Clinton who left Americans in harm’s way in Benghazi,” Pence said. But he argued Clinton thought “after four Americans fell, ‘what difference at this point does it make?’” Pence wouldn’t let up at that point:
“Anyone who said that, anyone who did that, should be disqualified from ever serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States of America”
His most effective one-liner of the night was when he mocked her lock step agreement with the Obama White House by calling her “America’s Secretary of the Status Quo.” He also needled the news media by zinging them for “doing half of (Hillary’s) work for her.”
Pence had a couple minor stumbles, but they were in areas few would notice. He claimed that Trump was a major supporter of educational choice -- a Pence priority as governor of Indiana -- but in reality Trump has often confused support for greater choices for school children with his opposition to Common Core’s educational standards.
But in general, Pence’s speech energized delegates, reached out to independents and presented Trump in a more favorable light than even the candidate usually does. “Pence’s speech was a knockout,” Paul Kamenar, a Washington, D.C. lawyer attending the convention, told me. “The big problem is that Cruz stepped all over his headlines and became the story of the night.”
John Fund is a columnist for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFund.