Commentary: With Trump picking Pence, it’s unclear who’s playing nice with whom

Conservatives would like to believe that, by naming Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is making a concession to them.

Donald Trump (R) and Indiana Governor Mike Pence (L) wave to the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II

They have it backward. It’s really a ploy by Trump to keep conservatives under control.

Pence was a tactical, not an ideological, move. Trump don't need no stinking ideology.  As he put it, “This is called the Republican Party. It's not called the conservative party.”

Trump keeps insisting that he is a master negotiator. In negotiations, sometimes you have to give up a little to show how reasonable you are. Trump’s objective is to placate conservatives just enough to keep them from disrupting the convention.

Trump is not worried about protests in the streets outside the convention hall. That would just bolster his effort to fashion himself as a “law-and-order” candidate. He’s worried about dissension inside the arena, from conservatives who refuse to accept him as their nominee.

Trump is running as a strongman. He is constantly attacking President Barack Obama as “weak.” Voters will have trouble believing that Trump will be able to control national events if they don’t think he can control his own party during the convention.

Conservatives have struggled for more than 50 years to take over the Republican Party. This year was supposed to be their final triumph. Their initial victory came with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In order to keep peace in the party, Reagan put George H.W. Bush, a total establishment Republican, on the ticket.

Bush succeeded Reagan as president, and Bush’s son, George W. Bush, went on to win eight years later. Conservatives, however, sensed backsliding under the Bushes. The Tea Party movement broke out in 2010 to purify the party and reassert conservative dominance.

So 2016 was supposed to be a showdown between former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the candidate of the old party establishment, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the hero of the Tea Party.

But Trump rallied his populist army and overwhelmed them both, leaving “low energy” Jeb and “lyin’ Ted” whimpering in the dust. Trump subdued the party establishment and the anti-establishment Tea Party at the same time.

Pence is the total Tea Party candidate. When he was in Congress, he refused to support the George W. Bush administration on the No Child Left Behind law, on the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs and on the Wall Street bailout. Pence is about as far right as you can get in American politics without falling off the edge.

The media is making a huge deal over Pence's differences with Trump on trade, the war in Iraq, abortion, gay rights and immigration. He has criticized Trump's plan to ban Muslim immigrants as “offensive and unconstitutional” because it violates religious freedom.

Trump doesn't give a damn. He's the boss, and Pence is going on the ticket on Trump's terms. Trump barely paid attention to Pence when he introduced him as his running mate on Saturday - not even staying on stage to hear Pence's brief remarks.

When the subject of Pence's differences with Trump came up in a CBS interview, Trump dismissed the question. “We're different people,” Trump asserted. “I understand that. I'll give you an example: Hillary Clinton is a liar.” Meaning, you want differences, I'll show you differences.

Republicans who believe they have a political future didn’t want to go on the ticket with Trump. He might lose by a landslide, and that would be the end of their career.

Why did Pence agree to do it? Because like the other finalists – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – Pence didn’t have much of a political future. It looked as if he could lose his bid for re-election in Indiana.

Now if Trump wins, Pence will be set up to become the next Republican candidate for president. And if Trump loses? Pence will still be a strong contender for the next Republican nomination, though he’s likely to face a battle with Cruz. The point is, Pence will probably not be blamed for Trump’s defeat.

But can Pence convince conservatives that Trump is really one of them? That will be tough, particularly after Cruz speaks at the convention and lays out a “non-Trump vision” for the future of the GOP. If conservatives see Pence as contaminated by Trump, he risks blowback. 

Pence has already faced criticism from the right for “melting in the heat” when he backed away from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana last year.

Could Trump actually get elected? It's not likely, but it's not impossible. He will have to run on the “change” issue. As a senior adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign put it, “All of Trump's recent mistakes will be wiped away if the convention coherently frames this race as ‘change versus more of the same.’”

The demand for change could become powerful if the wave of horrifying domestic violence and terrorist incidents continues.

There's a story going around that Trump is more interested in winning than in governing. If he gets elected, the arguments goes, Trump might refuse to serve. “I'll let you know how I feel about it after it happens,” he told the New York Times

If that were to happen, Vice President Pence would take over. And Tea Party conservatives would dance in the streets.

About the Author

Bill Schneider is a visiting professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of California – Los Angeles.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.