Once again, 2016 is making us rewrite the political rulebooks. We learned in May that you can win the Republican presidential nomination while saying that the Iraq war was based on a lie and praising socialized medicine. Now we’re seeing that you can get the vice-presidential nomination by being a red-state governor so politically weak that your endorsement doesn’t matter in your own state’s presidential primary and you are at risk of losing re-election.
Weakness may even have been a recommendation for Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and Trump’s pick. He meets what is probably an important Trump criterion for a running mate: He will not overshadow the boss. Newt Gingrich, who was also under consideration, is an interesting figure in his own right. Pence won’t draw the same attention Gingrich would have. Political weakness also made Pence interested in taking the job. It’s no accident that Trump’s reported list contained no one with a thriving political career.
Pence’s selection also shows that social conservatives remain a powerful force within the Republican Party. During the primaries Trump did relatively poorly among voters who consider themselves “very conservative,” and in many states he also underperformed among evangelical Christians. The fact that he won anyway, even with a very liberal record on social issues, led some analysts to suggest that social conservatism had lost its grip on the GOP.
That turned out to be wrong. Trump has courted social conservatives more insistently than any other element of the Republican coalition. He has come out against Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage and government funding for Planned Parenthood. He released a list of possible judicial nominees designed to keep social conservatives happy. Last month he held a well-publicized meeting with social conservatives to build bridges.
It’s true that social issues are not a priority for Trump, and that the sincerity of his newfound positions is questionable. But social conservatives are used to backing flip-floppers, from George H.W. Bush to Mitt Romney, and used to backing candidates who have different priorities than they do. Trump’s nomination certainly suggests that Republicans don’t vote on character the way social conservatives used to urge them to. But their clout in Republican politics does not seem to have declined.
Compare this bloc with the economic conservatives at the Club for Growth. They haven’t gotten Trump to adjust his positions nearly as much. He remains proudly at odds with them on trade and entitlements, and uninterested in their mantras of limited government and free markets. Foreign-policy hawks, meanwhile, haven’t just seen Trump reject their ideas. He rejects them personally, using them as foils.
And now social conservatives have gotten a veep pick more identified with them than with any other part of the party. Pence is a conservative on all issues, but as a congressman he led the fight to take federal funds away from Planned Parenthood. Some social conservatives are nonetheless unhappy with Pence: They think he did a poor job of defending a religious-liberty law in Indiana, and then caved to liberals by agreeing to weaken it. But overall, he has a good reputation on the social right.
If social conservatives greet Trump’s selection of Pence warmly, it won’t just be because they think it would give them a seat at the table in a Trump administration. (Who knows what role Pence would play in one?) It will also be because it means that for all the obituaries that have been written about their influence, they still matter.
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