Trump’s trusted sidekick prepares to walk a MAGA-era tightrope

Trump’s trusted sidekick prepares to walk a MAGA-era tightropeAugust 26, 2020

He’s the leading political chameleon of the Trump era, adapting seamlessly to give old-world, pre-Trump Republicans and new-world, MAGA-focused acolytes a message that works for each of their tastes.

And Mike Pence will take the stage as Wednesday’s feature act at the Republican National Convention, to show viewers and party up-and-comers the balancing act likely 2024 contenders must perform in a party transformed by President Donald Trump.

Trump’s obsequious vice president is as much a rumored presidential hopeful as former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — two other movement conservatives who stood out for their personal stories and rosy assessments, among Monday’s lineup of fire-breathing right-wingers and guests for whom proximity to Trump was the only explanation behind their appearance. But with his own name on the ticket and his political future riding on the outcome of this election, the convention stage carries more weight than most for Pence.

Beneath a replica of the star-spangled banner at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, the vice president will do what he does best: walk the Trump tightrope.

In remarks that are still being finalized, Pence is expected to combine flattering anecdotes about his divisive boss with a full-throated defense of Trumpism, and then blend it all together with a dash of Ronald Reagan’s infectious optimism. Unlike Haley and Scott, neither of whom are on the ballot this November, Pence must frame this moment in a way that pleases Trump, energizes their base and strikes the right chord with skeptical audiences.

If he succeeds in this role, he could emerge in November as a sturdy bridge between the old Republican guard and the new populist right during a second Trump term and beyond.

“2024 takes care of itself if Vice President Mike Pence can reassure and remind key elements of the base of all the promises he and President Trump have kept, and also make a compelling case to swing voters that he and Trump are the guys that will get people’s lives back to normal,” said Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips. “Voters will remember that at a key juncture in the 2020 election, this guy fired up the base to higher heights and brought persuadable voters on board.”

If Pence fails, a future political comeback will automatically seem improbable.

“Pence does a better job than almost anyone of taking the popular, defensible portions of the president’s agenda and fusing them with more traditional conservatism,” said Michael Steel, a former aide to GOP House Speaker John Boehner. “If this is a close election and the VP is seen to have done his best to help the ticket, he can argue plausibly that he’s the best candidate to bring together Trump supporters and traditional conservatives heading into the 2024 primary.”

Those closest to Pence said he is aware that his role at this year’s convention is different from the part he played in 2016, when he and Trump were mere acquaintances — shoved together in what aides assured them was a mutually beneficial partnership. Pence brought stability and conservative bona fides to the ticket in exchange for political stardom and an enhanced national profile if they won. He is still seen inside Trump’s circle as someone who offers meaningful reassurance to disgruntled conservatives, particularly those who favor the president’s policies but detest his rhetoric.

“The relationship they’ve had is something that is exceedingly rare in this administration,” Phillips said. “It’s been durable when so many others faltered.”

This time, Pence sees himself as a trusted conservative who can speak about Trump’s temperament behind the scenes and explain why working-class and suburban voters should trust he has their best interests at heart — even as the president struggles to articulate those interests himself.

“He really understands Trump’s thinking and the reasons why he makes his decisions and can articulate that in a much different way than the president does — one that resonates with older conservatives and voters who are used to more normal political rhetoric than blunt tweets,” said one former Pence aide.

People familiar with the vice president’s remarks said he will spend the bulk of his speech elevating accomplishments over the past four years that Trump believes have received slanted coverage and insufficient media attention. He’ll also aim to define the president’s second-term agenda in clearer terms.

Only a third of the vice president’s speech is expected to delve into the chief criticisms he and Trump have of their Democratic opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Officials inside the vice president’s office were adamant that Pence will focus on the president and his plans for the next four years, not himself and his own aspirations — a nod to Pence’s fealty even at a time of heightened uncertainty surrounding his own political fate and that of the party to which he belongs.

“The reason he is the most trusted member of this administration is because the president knows that the vice president has his back and is not self-serving,” said a senior White House official.

Pence has already shown he is capable of maintaining links to different wings of the party in a way that escapes his more capricious boss and other Trumpian figures. While the president rarely plays nice with Republican officials who have criticized his leadership or policies, Pence has proven willing to work with many of the administration’s sharpest critics on both sides of the aisle.

As chairman of the federal government’s coronavirus task force, he remains in close contact with state governors. As a devout Christian himself, he is regarded among religious conservatives as someone who speaks their language and keeps pressure on the president to take up their causes, such as abortion, religious liberty and school choice. And as the primary salesman for the administration’s revised trade deal with Mexico and Canada and a former governor from the heartland, he’s widened his appeal to white working-class voters who account for a substantial portion of the GOP base.

“He is well-versed in speaking at CPACs and state conventions and knows how to deliver red meat,” said the former Pence aide. “But he’s also capable of speaking to swing voters throughout the Midwest about the issues they’re facing — whether it’s trade, the economy as it is now or dealing with coronavirus — and he’s a military father who can appeal to ordinary patriotic Americans.”

Both Haley and Scott made their own attempts this week to walk the tightrope Pence has mastered since joining the GOP ticket in 2016. Despite far less riding on their appearances, they each earned high marks from mainstream Republicans. While recounting her experience as governor of South Carolina following the Mother Emanuel church shooting in 2015, Haley skirted around mentions of the Confederate flag, which Trump has said people should be able to fly freely.

“Together, we made the hard choices needed to heal — and removed a divisive symbol, peacefully and respectfully,” she said, describing her decision to remove the Confederate flag from state buildings following the mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., five years ago.

Meanwhile, Scott spoke with the same genteel tone that has become a hallmark of Pence’s public remarks. His was a Pence-like speech through and through — from lavishing praise on the president for building “the most inclusive economy ever” to criticizing Biden’s attitude toward Black voters and acknowledging the country is “not fully where we want to be” on issues of race and economic equality.

“We have work to do, but I believe in the goodness of America, the promise that all men, and all women, are created equal,” Scott said.

If the speeches by Haley and Scott were well-received, Phillips said he expects the vice president’s speech to go over even better — not because Pence will consciously strike a balance between extolling his boss and offering a future-oriented take on the president’s second-term agenda, but because that balance comes naturally to him after so many years at Trump’s side.

“I think the difference between Mike Pence and Nikki Haley or Sen. Scott is Pence has been there every step of the way and the other two can’t say that,” said Phillips, who will be in the audience Wednesday night when Pence delivers his remarks in Baltimore.

“They delivered really uplifting speeches. It’s just that the vice president knows Donald Trump in a way very few others do and that will make a significant difference when he takes the stage.”

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