On Saturday morning, in the New York hotel ballroom where Donald Trump was set to introduce Mike Pence as his running mate, reporters listen to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” play over the loudspeaker.
Either members of the advance team didn’t appreciate the irony or they had a sardonic sense of humor.
There’s ample evidence that Trump wasn’t sold on Pence, even after the Indiana governor had accepted the invitation to join the ticket. Similarly, there are plenty of reasons to believe Pence doesn’t like or even respect Trump.
By Saturday morning, Trump kept saying, over and over again, that Pence was his “first choice” as running mate – which is precisely the sort of overly defensive thing one says when the claim isn’t remotely true.
And so, given all of this, coupled with the fact that the presumptive nominee had plenty of other options, why in the world did Trump pick Pence? The presidential hopeful briefly acknowledged the truth during Saturday morning’s announcement:
‘I think if you look at one of the big reasons that I chose Mike – and one of the reasons is party unity, I have to be honest. So many people have said party unity. Because I’m an outsider. I want to be an outsider. I think it’s one of the reasons I won in landslides. I won in landslides. This wasn’t close. This wasn’t close….” [emphasis added]
Trump went on to talk quite a bit longer about how impressed he was with his primary victories – I’m fairly certain he forgot the point of the event during his remarks – but he nevertheless added a dash of truth in there: Pence is on the ticket for the sake of “party unity.”
That’s not generally the sort of thing a national candidate acknowledges so plainly. As a rule, presidential candidates say they’ve chosen their running mates because they’re ready to take on the responsibilities of president should crisis strike, because they’ve earned the opportunity through their accomplishments, etc. Trump’s candor strips away the pretense.
As a New York Times report added, Trump’s team reminded him that his running mate would have to “unite the Republican Party.” And as it turns out, he’s not the first candidate to face such a calculus.
Regular readers are probably familiar with the August-November-January model of running mates. To briefly review, these are three categories that vice presidential candidates tend to fall into:
An “August” is a running mate announced around the time of the convention, and is intended to help bring a party together. (August refers to the time party conventions are usually held, so perhaps this year it’s better to relabel it as a July.)
A “November” is a running mate chosen to help a candidate win the general election.
A “January” is a running mate who the presidential candidate expects to help govern after the inauguration.
I see the categories themselves as value-neutral – there have been good and bad running mates in each grouping.
In the GOP’s 2016 ticket, Trump isn’t even being subtle about Pence’s status as an August. Rather, the candidate came right out and admitted that he’s focused on “party unity” right now as his paramount goal.
And that may not be the worst idea given the circumstances. Polls show Trump in a fairly strong position among Republican voters nationwide, but it’s hardly a secret that he faces GOP resistance from many within the party, especially at an institutional level. The Indiana governor, meanwhile, despite his right-wing extremism, is a member of the Republican establishment in good standing.
Adding Pence to the ticket is probably the first thing GOP leaders on Capitol Hill have liked about the Trump campaign since its launch.
But there’s a downside to picking an August: it reveals a candidate who finds it necessary to focus on shoring up his or her base, rather than broadening his or her support. Trump could have picked a running mate with broad appeal, but in the interest of “party unity,” he instead went with a conservative red-state governor, who spent 12 years as one of Congress’ most far-right radicals.
Given that Trump is an underdog who’s currently losing this race, it’s a move that addresses one problem (party divisions), while neglecting another (his woeful standing with the American mainstream).
As Paul Waldman put it the other day, “When he ought to be figuring out how to appeal to the broad American electorate, Trump is still acting as though his most urgent task is to persuade Republican primary voters to get behind him.”
Maybe that was a necessary move given the intra-party pressures Trump is feeling, but it won’t improve his chances of becoming president.