Indiana Gov. Mike Pence leaves a press conference March 31, 2015 at the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis, Indiana. 
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty

To see Mike Pence as ‘normal’ is to grade on a generous curve

Last week, ahead of the first presidential debate, Donald Trump seemed to have certain structural advantages: expectations were so low, many pundits said he’d win simply by showing up and pretending to be normal for 90 minutes. It was a bar the Republican nominee failed to clear.

Ahead of tonight’s vice presidential debate, Mike Pence is in a tougher spot. His ticket is struggling and his GOP partner is at the center of a variety of damaging controversies, each of which are difficult to defend, suggesting the Indiana governor will have to play some defense during his showdown with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Complicating matters, NBC News noted this morning that Pence “has the toughest job in politics tonight,” not only because of Trump’s troubles, but also because the far-right governor “has to defend Trump on issues where the two men are at odds.” It’s not a short list: Pence supported NAFTA, voted for the Iraq war, backed the TPP, and opposed Trump’s Muslim ban. Pence also endorsed congressional Republican leaders when Trump would not, praised the Khan family when Trump criticized them, blasted Saddam Hussein when Trump praised him, and condemned Russia’s computer hack when Trump was urging Russia to do even more.

In a debate, it’s a recipe for some awkwardness.

But in one important area, Pence has the advantage of being perceived as a mainstream pol. Politico published a piece yesterday that characterized tonight’s vice presidential debate as “Battle of the Normals,” and a “sane moment” in a campaign cycle that’s often seemed insane.
It looms as the most normal political encounter of this paranormal political year: two middle-aged career politicians, experienced legislators and governors, debating for 90 minutes over their sharp but presumably civilized policy differences on the issues of the day.

There’ll be no Donald Trump-style invective. No Bernie Sanders ideological fireworks. No crowded field of GOP contenders vying to outdo each other for one good sound bite or memorable attack. Just two conventional pols reverting to form.
On a certain level, I can appreciate where analysis like this is coming from. As a matter of tone and temperament, Mike Pence is hardly scary: the governor is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken Midwesterner. Unlike the man at the top of the GOP ticket, no one would ever expect Pence to start tweeting at 3 a.m. about his disgust for a beauty-pageant contestant and encourage Americans to seek out a “sex tape.”

But to shift one’s focus from tone to policy is to see one of the most extremist politicians to seek national office in over a generation.

Let’s circle back to our coverage from July for a minute. About four years ago, Nate Silver published an interesting analysis of Paul Ryan, who’d just been named to Mitt Romney’s ticket. Nate wrote at the time, “Various statistical measures of Mr. Ryan peg him as being quite conservative. Based on his Congressional voting record, for instance, the statistical system DW-Nominate evaluates him as being roughly as conservative as Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. By this measure, in fact, which rates members of the House and Senate throughout different time periods on a common ideology scale, Mr. Ryan is the most conservative Republican member of Congress to be picked for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900.”
Nate added a chart, highlighting the fact that Ryan’s record put him slightly to the right of Dick Cheney, who was slightly to the right of Dan Quayle.
But before Pence became governor, he was a longtime member of Congress – which means we can turn to the same DW-Nominate statistical system to get a better sense of the Indiana Republican’s ideology. And the data shows puts Pence well to Ryan’s right.
In the 107th Congress (Pence’s first, covering 2001 and 2002), for example, out of 435 members of the U.S. House, Pence ranked #428 – meaning that 427 members were to his left, putting the Hoosier on the far-right-wing fringe. The results were roughly the same in the 108th Congress and the 109th.
By the 110th Congress, Pence was at #432, putting him to the right of nearly everyone in the chamber. The results were roughly the same in the 111th Congress and the 112th.
Let’s put this another way: during his congressional career, Pence wasn’t just more conservative than Paul Ryan. His voting record also put him to the right of Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Steve King, and even Louie Gohmert. That’s not an exaggeration. Bachmann, Akin, King, and Gohmert all had voting records less extreme than Mike Pence.

The problem is the gap between perceptions of Mike Pence and his actual record. To use Politico’s phrasing, the Hoosier is seen as “normal” and “conventional.” But on a substantive level, we’re talking about a politician whose claim to fame is an anti-LGBT law that did real harm to his state. Pence is a climate denier. He rejects the idea that cigarettes are deadly. He doesn’t believe in evolutionary biology, but he does support “conversion therapy.”

Long after it was obvious Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, Pence was still insisting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Soon after, when the Bush/Cheney administration pushed partial privatization of Social Security, the Indiana Republican was outraged – because he said the plan wasn’t nearly right-wing enough. In 2011, just a few months after the GOP took control of the U.S. House, Pence’s big idea, to the annoyance of his party leaders, was to shut down the federal government.

Pence also once accused Disney of hiding political propaganda in an animated film to convince people that women can serve in the military.

By most sensible standards, Mike Pence has earned a reputation as an extremist. If this guy is what passes for “normal” and “conventional” in Republican politics in 2016, standards have shifted in a politically unhealthy direction.

Debates and Mike Pence

To see Mike Pence as 'normal' is to grade on a generous curve