Donald Trump signaled that Indiana Governor Mike Pence will be his running mate today, cueing the Odd Couple music in newsrooms across the nation—or perhaps the theme to the remake of 21 Jump Street. Pence is a devoted social conservative; Trump is the first presidential candidate in history to pose on the front page of Playboy magazine. Pence is an experienced governor and legislator; Trump used to put experienced governors and legislators in his back pocket. I’ve got a million more couplets like that, if they’re needed.
But why Pence? The Indiana governor has implemented some tax reform, but he’s primarily known for the religious freedom legislation that he signed into law last year after a turbulent debate that mushroomed into the national media. The hullaballoo was overdone: similar laws had long ago been passed at the federal level and in 19 other states, but the timing—not long after the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision and not long before its Obergefell ruling that legalized gay marriage nationwide—turned it into a flashpoint.
So Pence will thrill pro-lifers, assuage anxious evangelicals, and enthrone Trump atop Ronald Reagan’s stool with its wobbly-but-supportive socially conservative leg. But that’s a CPAC diagramming exercise, not a strategy to win the national electorate. Trump already won Pence’s home state of Indiana and is set to prevail among Hoosiers again in November. And nationally, most of the right-of-center voters who Pence will reassure were already going to vote Trump anyway, and the #NeverTrump gang—which includes yours truly—isn’t about to do a U-turn and vote for a carrot-topped maniac because Mike Pence is now on the ticket.
So what will this accomplish? Pence won’t carve off Millennials, who loathe anti-gay marriage Republicans almost as much as they loathe being called “Millennials.” He’s not going to placate Hispanics and African Americans, who regard Trump as a particularly mutant strand of the bubonic plague. He’ll only feed the Democratic lie that Republicans are anti-woman vulgarians, as Team Clinton picks through his socially conservative rhetoric with a backhoe. He’ll imbue the ticket with some gravitas—Gary Johnson and Bill Weld can no longer claim they’re the only governors in the race—but there are 30 other Republican executives who would have achieved the same effect. Why this one?
Perhaps Pence is the last GOP officeholder in America who Trump hasn’t insulted. Or perhaps it was a simple process of elimination. The only others who indicated a burning interest in the veep slot were Newt Gingrich, Mike Flynn, and Chris Christie. Gingrich is a capricious and self-interested celebrity wannabe who passed his prime long ago—no room on the ticket for two of those. Flynn is an interesting, if somewhat volatile, retired general, but as a running mate he’s too House of Cards season four, and anyway the public is only peripherally interested in foreign policy this election cycle. And Trump-Christie is the couple you expect to see sitting in an IHOP booth at four-thirty in the afternoon.
So slim pickins. It’s certainly hard to envision any of the real GOP rising stars—Sasse, Paul, Cruz, Martinez, Haley—jumping for Trump after he’s spewed so much vitriol at them. Pence’s most admirable trait is his calm: a former radio host, he’s described himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” and has sworn off negative campaigning. He’ll add some composure to the ticket, but so would a baboon. Against the Clinton machine, is that really enough?