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Analysis: Mike Pence Works the Trenches

Vice president plays small ball, seeking to shore up support

Vice President Mike Pence met Tuesday with Republican House lawmakers, still hesitating on the GOP health care bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Vice President Mike Pence met Tuesday with Republican House lawmakers, still hesitating on the GOP health care bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump and Mike Pence are the most effective pitchers in the Republican bullpen. The president has the starpower and gets the headlines, but the vice president’s emerging role could be just as valuable.

Trump is the flame-throwing closer with one pitch: his signature sharp rhetoric that metaphorically is his political fastball. But Pence’s recent public appearances showcase his role as the in-the-trenches long reliever who huddles with GOP members and reassures key constituent groups, and could be even more valuable.

The pair’s recent schedules show a stark contrast that brings their roles into focus.

Trump on Friday entered the ornate East Room of the White House to sign a bill tailored to help military veterans get better care. In doing so, the commander in chief claimed a major personal achievement. It was carried live by cable news networks.

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On Wednesday night, Trump was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he, for over an hour, attacked his foes, made bold promises and listed the achievements of what he views as the most productive presidency at this point in U.S. history. The campaign-style rally lit Twitter on fire, made the front pages of all the major newspapers, and is still being replayed in soundbyte form on every network.

The same cannot be said of Pence’s recent public speeches.

The vice president quietly goes about the methodical business of delivering Trump’s often searing populist message and governing vision in a friendlier, more conservative package.

That certainly was the case Friday, when Air Force Two landed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Pence addressed a conference put on by Focus on the Family, the self-described “global Christian ministry” that provides “help and resources for couples to build healthy marriages that reflect God’s design.”

It’s just the kind of conservative group with which Trump, a thrice-married Manhattanite who appeared often on Howard Stern’s then-raunchy radio show and has made caught-on-tape remarks that made many religious people cringe, has an unlikely and shaky alliance.

The same cannot be said of Pence, who is very much at home with Christian conservatives.

The previous day, there was Pence, addressing a conference of contractors and builders in Washington. And he hailed them in terms that neatly aligned with core Republican principles.

“You champion fiscal responsibility and individual freedom,” Pence said. “And I promise you, the American people are grateful that you are a champion for American values.

As he typically does when addressing an issue-specific group, the vice president — a career politician and Washington veteran — makes clear its importance to the Trump-Pence agenda.

“This president has promised, simply put, in his words, to rebuild America,” Pence said in his radio-trained voice. “And it’s businesses like yours that are going to play such a leading role in doing that. Ahead of schedule and under budget, right?”

The same was true on Tuesday, when the former Indiana governor and congressman spoke to a National Association of Manufacturers summit, just the kind of voters that went for the Trump-Pence ticket in November in key Rust Belt states that helped put the GOP ticket over the top.

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“Since your founding more than 120 years ago, the National Association of Manufacturers has fought tirelessly for the time-honored American principles of free enterprise, competitiveness, individual liberty, and equal opportunity,” Pence said.

“And not only do you advocate for the businesses in this room, you really advocate for America itself. American manufacturers are the beating heart of our national life and always will be,” the vice president said to applause before delivering the line designed to tie the group directly to his and the president’s agenda ahead of their expected 2020 re-election bid.

“To borrow a phrase,” Pence said, “manufacturers make America and they make America great.”

Michael Steel, a former aide to 2016 GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, said Pence is a “natural choice for such targeted outreach” because he possesses “a deep background dealing with a range of individual interest groups across a spectrum of issues.”

Jerri Ann Henry, a GOP political strategist, said the vice president “provides a calming presence to groups who are inundated with speculation about Trump’s plans and loyalties. Pence calms those concerns.”

“He has a lot of credibility with some of the hard-right groups like Focus on the Family, credibility Trump doesn’t have even if those groups supported him,” Henry said. “Through all of the chaos of this administration, I think it is safe to say Pence is without question the most valuable player.”