Some news that escaped much notice in President Trump’s post-midterm press conference was his vote of confidence in Vice President Mike Pence. It’s a key point looking ahead to Trump’s reelection campaign in 2020.
Asked by a reporter if Trump would again chose Pence as his running mate, Trump said, “Well I haven’t asked him, but I hope so. Mike, will you be my running mate?”
A presumably embarrassed and ever-modest Pence nodded warmly, and Trump joked about the situation: “That was unexpected, but I feel very fine.”
The development is a very good sign.
Some pundits had already begun playing the inevitable game of “what if” a sitting president dumps his vice president in order to curry favor with various voter groups.
The theory goes that as a white male evangelical from the Midwest, Pence has already delivered all he can for Trump, who has only gained in popularity among those constituencies since his 2016 election. Some have suggested Trump replace Pence with someone like Nikki Haley, the talented and appealing Indian-American former governor and diplomat who was skeptical of Trump as a candidate. Would she not appeal to suburban women who should vote Republican but supposedly don’t like Trump’s style?
Pence is able to act as an appealing lieutenant and force-multiplier on the campaign trail. This helped flip the Indiana Senate seat to Republicans in recent elections, and will help Trump hold the Midwest in 2020.
Advocates of this theory fundamentally misunderstand both the nature of the modern vice presidency and the new political era that Trump has initiated.
In much of the 20th century, parties and presidential candidates followed the flawed theory that vice presidents should balance presidents. If the top man was from the North, his veep should be from the South or West. If he was on the left or right, his sidekick should be from the center. Supposedly this helped win elections although evidence is elusive.
In reality, it contributed to regrettable vice presidents who harmed reelection efforts or presidencies, such as Henry Wallace (way to the left of Franklin Roosevelt and dumped after one term), Lyndon Johnson (a southern Democrat who became one of our worst presidents when John F. Kennedy was assassinated), Spiro Agnew (ousted from Richard Nixon’s White House one step ahead of the law), and Nelson Rockefeller (a New York liberal Gerald Ford felt obliged to drop from his ticket).
Bill Clinton changed this model in 1992 by selecting Al Gore as his running mate. Gore, who at the time was still a moderate like Clinton, also, like Clinton, came from the South. The idea was that the veep nominee should reflect the presidential candidate, not balance him. This not only contributed to electoral success for Clinton and his successors, it mean that vice presidents acted in sync with presidents, positioning them better to fulfil their most important prospective duty: to assume the presidency and ensure continuity if an unplanned presidential succession should occur.
The new model meant the vice president was more likely to be a trusted, private advisor to the president, rather than a scheming rival. It also avoided the situation Harry Truman faced when he assumed the presidency and control of the wartime military as a virtual stranger to the rest of the executive branch upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt.
The new model was good politics and good for the country.
Pence clearly fits with the model. While he is from a different geography than Trump, he has acted in lockstep on policy, differed from Trump precisely zero times in public, and reserved his advice for one-on-one sessions with the president. All outward signs are that Trump values this private counsel. The two men’s interests are aligned. Politically, while Trump is the star of any election campaign, Pence is able to act as an appealing lieutenant and force-multiplier on the campaign trail. This helped flip the Indiana Senate seat to Republicans in recent elections, and will help Trump hold the Midwest in 2020.
Substituting Haley or someone similar for Pence would swap a model that works for one that often does not, and potentially produce a less efficient West Wing in a second Trump term.
It may also make a second Trump term less likely to occur. One of the fundamental innovations of Trump is that he rejects identity politics, which are revolting to an overwhelming if silent majority of Americans. Dumping a loyal colleague in an attempt to pander to a demographic (suburban women) with a new deputy based on her skin color and sex is not Trump’s style—something his supporters love about him. Those suggesting Trump begin pandering are giving risky advice.
Whether it comes to winning elections, managing the executive branch, or ensuring the country has a reliable replacement if a crisis succession should ever occur, Mike Pence is and will likely remain one of President Trump’s best decisions.