When Indiana Governor Mike Pence endorsed Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a last-ditch attempt to prevent authoritarian billionaire Donald Trump from securing the Republican nomination earlier this year, Pence went out of his way to avoid offending Trump.
Just before the critical May 3 Indiana primary, which proved to be the last stand at the ballot box for Cruz and the so-called #NeverTrump movement, Pence announced: “I’m not against anybody, but I will be voting for Ted Cruz in the upcoming Republican primary.”
That was about as tepid as an endorsement could get.
But Pence wasn’t done. He watered things down a little more by praising the guy he wasn’t endorsing.
“I particularly want to commend Donald Trump, who I think has given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans with a lack of progress in Washington, DC,” he explained in a radio interview. “And I’m also particularly grateful that Donald Trump has taken a strong stance for Hoosier jobs.”
That was typical Mike Pence. He may identify as a Republican and a conservative, but he is first and foremost a political opportunist of the old school who is constantly on the make—looking for the next opening to advance a career that is long on ambition but short of vision. As Indiana political analyst Andrew Downs says: “Mike Pence clearly would like to be in the White House. Everybody knows he would like to be in the White House, and one way to get there is by being the VP.”
That’s fine by Trump. He just needs a sidekick who is sufficiently connected to corporate and conservative insiders and sufficiently deferential to the presumptive nominee.
Trump took note of Pence’s carefully crafted ambiguity last spring. The Republican presidential contender called Pence’s declaration for Cruz “the weakest endorsement anyone has seen in a long time.”
The political strongman was not offended by Pence’s weakness. Rather, he recognized this obscure governor as someone who was sufficiently ambitious and calculating to meet his standards.
Trump confirmed Friday that he has chosen the “weakest-endorsement” governor to be his running mate on a ticket that prominent Republicans with common sense and/or a conscience had indicated they were unwilling to join.
Trump, who has gone out of his way to position himself as an outsider challenging the political establishment, has found in Pence a consummate insider who is wedded to the conservative political establishment—and its generous network of wealthy donors. That works for Trump because he is still struggling to unite a Republican Party that is made up of social, economic, and foreign-policy wings that do not always get along. Trump has offended most of them. But Pence has spent a lifetime appealing to each of them—even at the expense of his broader appeal to more mainstream general-election voters.