Analysis: The Pence pick is a conventional choice by an unconventional candidate

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, arrive to meet with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Trump Tower Friday in New York. Trump has chosen Pence as his running mate, adding political experience and conservative bona fides to his Republican presidential ticket. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, arrive to meet with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Trump Tower Friday in New York. Trump has chosen Pence as his running mate, adding political experience and conservative bona fides to his Republican presidential ticket. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]
Published July 15, 2016

CLEVELAND — Donald Trump did something uncharacteristic in selecting Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate. He has chosen the safe course over flashier but more risky alternatives. The question is whether the decision is an aberration or represents an important change in his candidacy going forward.

For weeks, Trump has been in a tug of war between his own instincts and the advice of some of his advisers, inside and outside his campaign. Those advisers have urged him to tone it down, to deal with questions about his temperament by acting and sounding more presidential than the candidate who churned through the primaries by doing the opposite.

He has prided himself on being unconventional and unpredictable, and against much advice for many months, has always reverted to form. He has thumbed his nose at those who have tried to turn him into something he hasn't wanted to be. From where he sits, he can say that he beat all the expert strategists and the professional politicians. Why change for the general election?

But by choosing Pence over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, he has embraced the thinking of those who have recommended boring over flamboyant, less risk taking and more reassurance.

On the eve of a national convention that will help to define the kind of campaign he intends to run for the duration of the general election against Hillary Clinton, he has picked as his running mate someone who fits the very definition of a conventional choice. That will make many people in the party happy, but will it make Trump happy in the end?

Pence is hardly a natural fit with the Republican nominee-in-waiting. Their personalities are not obviously compatible — a freewheeling, unpredictable, often bombastic New Yorker versus a deeply religious, button-downed, conservative Midwesterner. It seemed clear throughout the transparently opaque selection process — at least what could be observed at a distance — that it took some effort to develop a relationship.

The two men are just as incompatible on issues. They disagree on the Trans Pacific Partnership (Trump opposed, Pence in favor); reforming Social Security (Pence in favor, Trump generally opposed); and Trump's proposal to ban Muslims temporarily from entering the country (Pence spoke out against it). Pence has been a vigorous opponent of Planned Parenthood; Trump has defended the group's work on behalf of women's health, though not on abortion.

This isn't something terribly unique. On matters where their views differ, Pence will obviously defer to Trump. A presidential nominee's ideas always prevail over those of a running mate when the two disagree. Their differences will cause some immediate heartburn and a fair amount of negative coverage in the coming days. But they aren't likely to be a lasting issue in the campaign unless one or the other turns them into a lasting story — which isn't out of the question given Trump's past history.

Of a list that included Christie and Gingrich, Pence is viewed inside the Republican Party as the safest choice, though not universally as the best choice. All three have some flaws and weaknesses, just as is the case with every vice presidential short-list. But at a time when Trump needs to show he cares about uniting his party, Pence brings more than the others.

Christie has the longest and closest relationship with Trump and also an ability to speak bluntly when giving advice. That combination would be useful in a governing environment. His prosecutorial skills would have been put to use in helping lead the attack on Clinton in the fall campaign. But the New Jersey governor is not fully trusted by conservatives and his selection could have produced resistance and complaints among the delegates here in Cleveland.

Gingrich has obviously impressed Trump as a generator of ideas and as someone ready and eager to take on Democrats and the liberal media. He would have reinforced the view of a Republican ticket that would come to Washington determined to shake the status quo — as he put it in one TV interview, two pirates against the world. But he has had a difficult relationship with the party establishment and would have been seen by those longing for some stability in Trump someone who would have encouraged just the opposite.

What makes Pence in the eyes of many Republicans the best choice among the three is the degree to which his selection could strengthen Trump's shaky relationship with the party's conservative base, buy a healthy measure of peace at next week's national convention and thus allow Trump to claim by week's end that the party is leaving Cleveland more united than it was in the weeks before.

Pence has executive experience as a governor and the kind of Washington experience Trump has said he wants. He has ties to the party establishment, having been a member of the House leadership. He will also reassure donors who have had qualms about the presumptive nominee.

He helps more than Christie or Gingrich in reassuring religious and social conservatives who are backing Trump but nonetheless have doubts about a man who once said he was strongly supportive of abortion rights and who has been friendly toward the LGBT community. Pence knows the ins and outs of the groups and the leaders of that movement and can translate Trump to them.

There are few people in the party who have demonstrated more rhetorical skill at rousing the base at events than Pence. Some Republicans who applauded his selection said they have confidence he will be a skilled and tough debater in the lone vice presidential debate this fall and comfortable on the attack against Clinton.

But not everyone who knows him is confident about that. One Republican strategist, who otherwise sees Pence as a solid and credible choice, nonetheless noted that, in his 2012 gubernatorial campaign, he was reluctant to aggressively go after his opponent. He ended up winning by a narrower margin than party leaders had hoped or expected.

Others wonder how Pence will hold up in the glare of what promises to be a tough and highly negative presidential campaign. Gingrich and Christie have weathered high-profile controversies or scandals. Pence's one moment in the national spotlight came last year with the storm over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In that case, Pence, who vigorously supported the law and then sought modification after a backlash from the business community and others, managed to offend them both sides.

Pence's selection represents the ultimate triumph of Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman, who has tried since he first arrived last spring to bring discipline to a candidate who has thrived by his lack of predictability. For months, Manafort has tried to reassure party leaders and the GOP establishment generally that Trump could and would make a successful transition to a candidate who projected a more presidential demeanor and temperament.

The choice also reinforces the electoral map strategy favored by Manafort and Trump, one that concentrates on the industrial Midwest and appeals to white-working class voters, rather than one designed to boost Trump's weak standing among Hispanic voters or, seemingly, to find ways to boost support among women, particularly suburban married women.

Pence has weaknesses in Indiana and would have faced a challenging reelection campaign this fall had he not joined the GOP ticket. It isn't clear that he can help boost support for Trump in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin or elsewhere.

The choice of Pence brings Trump obvious short-term benefits. What will be worth watching is whether the selection will be followed by other evidence of a change in tone and temperament by the Republican nominee-in-waiting. If that happens, party leaders believe Trump can turn himself into a more appealing and therefore electable candidate. But that would go against almost everything Trump has shown over the past 13 months as a presidential candidate.