Mike Pence Has More to Lose Than an Election

Can he defend Trump but not sacrifice his own credibility in the process?

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence has a harder job in Tuesday's debate than his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine, Patricia Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence has a harder job in Tuesday's debate than his Democratic counterpart Tim Kaine, Patricia Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 3, 2016 at 11:38am

If Donald Trump spends even 90 minutes of time preparing for his next debate against Hillary Clinton, let’s hope he spends it watching Mike Pence debate Tim Kaine Tuesday night.

Unlike Trump, who was reportedly too distracted to bother getting ready for his own face-off with Clinton, Pence has prepared for Tuesday night’s debate like a Boy Scout looking for a badge.

In accounts from his aides, Pence has been getting ready since the day he was chosen as Trump’s VP, poring over binders, studying policy issues, and doing multiple mock debates with his friend, Gov. Scott Walker. Pence even flew to Wisconsin last week for one last session with Walker before going up against Kaine on Tuesday.

If Trump can put down his Twitter feed long enough to watch Pence in action, he’ll probably see Pence executing a strategy that looks a lot like the one Trump should have followed against Clinton in their first debate.

Let’s file these things under “What to Do” in Mr. Trump’s debate prep folder. We’ll likely see Pence articulate conservative principles like smaller government, lower taxes, a robust national defense, religious liberty and the importance of appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

Pence will discredit Clinton and Kaine as two career politicians and you can bet he will throw the words “Benghazi” and “private email server” somewhere in there, too.

Even though he’ll be attacking Clinton and Kaine, Pence will say these things in a tone of voice that is measured, but passionate, like a life coach, and end on a note of national unity, ignoring the irony that he is on a ticket with a man who acts like a blowtorch at a toilet paper convention.

While Trump is watching Pence Tuesday, he should pay careful attention as Pence avoids some common debate mistakes a person could make, like admitting to paying no federal income taxes or rebutting an opponent’s point by simply yelling, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

And if he has a hard time sleeping in the nights to follow, he will probably drink a glass of milk and go back to bed instead of tweeting that a former Miss Universe is a “disgusting” sex tape star.

Let’s file these items in Mr. Trump’s debate prep folder under “What Not to Do (Next Time).”

[Opinion: Pence and the Path to Power for the GOP]

Being professional, respectful and knowledgeable may be hard for Trump, but it will be the easy part for Pence in the debate, because that’s who he is.

The hard part for Pence Tuesday night is also the hardest part of his vice presidential candidacy, which is the vast expanse that separates Pence and Trump on issues, temperament and character.

On the policy side, Pence and Trump have varied wildly at times. While Trump has insisted that he was against the Iraq War from the beginning, Pence voted for the war when he was in the House.

On his signature issue of trade, Trump called called the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the “rape of our country,”  but Pence lobbied for its passage in 2014.

When Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country last year, Pence called the idea “offensive and unconstitutional.”

As Trump’s running mate, Pence has released 10 years of tax returns, even while Trump has refused, and Pence has said plainly that President Obama was born in the United States, while Trump said recently that he did “a great job” insisting that the president produce a long-form birth certificate.

Between Kaine and Pence, the Indiana governor clearly has the harder job Tuesday night, and not just because his boss blew it in last week’s debate.

Pence’s job is harder because his greatest asset is his credibility. While Trump flails and yells, Pence’s credibility, earned over a lifetime of public service, has allowed him to be the steady voice on the ticket, the “Reliable One” his fellow Republicans can trust will be the grown-up in a Trump administration. His credibility is also the reason he will be at the top of the list of GOP candidates in the future. 

[Republicans Launch Willie Horton-Style Attack on Kaine]

But how far will Pence go Tuesday night in pursuit of becoming the vice president? Will his ambition lead him to defend Trump’s 3 a.m. tweets seething at people who have slighted him? Will he parrot Trump’s paid employees, who insist Trump won Monday’s debate, or call Trump “a gentleman” while Trump dumps Bill Clinton’s infidelities at Hillary Clinton’s feet? Will he agree that American allies have to “pay up,” as Trump says, or face the consequences?

Pence is on the ticket, but will he join the charade? It’s one thing to defend Trump, which is Pence’s job. But it’s another to sacrifice his own credibility in the process.

If that happens in Tuesday’s debate, Pence will not only damage the ticket, he will lose much more than an election in November. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.