Mike Pence did not belong on that stage.
It’s a cruel twist of irony for what was supposed to be the governor’s debutante moment. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a press conference to introduce the current Indiana Governor and former Indiana Congressman Pence as his vice presidential pick, but Pence’s political cotillion was overshadowed by Trump’s self-centered, narcissistic platitudes. When Pence was finally introduced, the party was already over; Trump had left the stage, forcing the debutante to masquerade alone at his own ball.
Prior to joining Trump’s campaign, Pence already had a lengthy political resume boasting strong conservative record. Nationally, he gained notoriety for championing social conservatism in an increasingly progressive America. Popular among Republican establishment folks, Pence is best-known for his spearheading of Indiana’s religious freedom bill in 2015, which would have allowed businesses to refuse service to customers based on sexual orientation; the bill was eventually revised. A stark contrast to Trump, Pence had made a career out of advocating traditionally conservative values that have seemingly disappeared from this year’s Republican platform and replaced by a revolution that feels similarly stagnant, but shockingly more sinister.
Amidst reports of last-minute doubts, Trump still declared Pence his running mate. A logo that presented a visual “that’s what she said” moment was unleashed and photos of the two men were Photoshopped and uploaded as Trump’s Twitter cover photo. Evident to most pundits, this pick was a compromise: a symbolic shout-out to Reince Priebus, the Bush family, and the people who thought Ted Cruz’s speech was brave and not utterly psychotic. With the Pence pick, Trump proves that he is, perhaps, more or less the politician he insisted he wasn’t.
As the Republican National Convention roared on like a critically ridiculed Michael Bay blockbuster, Pence looked like one of the last cowboys salvaging the horrors of what his party has become, but willingly nodding along with the soundtrack. It’s hard not to surmise that Pence probably got the same pitch as Ohio Governor John Kasich received when the Trump campaign reached out: as vice president, he’ll be in charge of domestic and foreign policy. If Trump is elected, Pence will become the de facto president in a way that would probably make Dick Cheney jealous.
That’s not a thrilling election narrative, though. We don’t want to think about a President Mike Pence because that’s underwhelming. We’re in the middle of an outrageous campaign between white supremacist businessman, Donald Trump, and a complicated, unpopular career politician, Hillary Clinton. Though they’re both disliked, they’re also both running for president. Twenty-century attention spans are much more fixated on villains than any other caricature.
A day after Trump’s long, fascistic RNC acceptance speech, Democratic presidential candidate Clinton introduced current Virginia Senator and former Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, as her vice presidential pick. Kaine is a safe, inoffensive pick, unlikely to rile up any establishment Democrats or persuade any hardcore Bernie bros. In contrast to Trump’s introduction of Pence, however, Kaine was introduced in a predictable fashion: Clinton said a few proud words about her choice and Kaine gave an affable speech suitable for a Democratic presidential candidate’s running mate as Clinton stood by his side. Subsequent to the rally, Clinton supporters received a short but friendly VP introductory email with the subject line, “Hi, I’m Tim.”
That said, this is less a character study of Clinton’s and Trump’s campaign styles, but more about the implications of their vice president selections. The vice presidency is more or less a minor advisory role because, as we all know too well from the musical Hamilton, former vice president John Adams “doesn’t have a real job anyway.” Their selections, to say the least, served as an homage to establishment politics. But in any other year in history, Pence and Kaine could have been running against each other for the coveted seat of the President of the United States. This year, though, they’re not, and it’s hard not to imagine an alternative universe where they are running for president, and the status quo—of how we perceive the presidency, election campaigns, or the two dominant political parties—being livelier than ever.
Touted as the “first and only” interview, Trump and Pence appeared together on 60 Minutes before the RNC. Conducted in Trump’s gaudy penthouse, reporter Lesley Stahl asked questions about issues that divided Trump and Pence—from the Iraq War to immigration to whether or not John McCain should be considered a hero because he was a POW.
Trapped in a diabolical funhouse and perched on a gold-encrusted chair, Pence did his utmost to support Trump. Pence insisted that he believed that Trump does things from the heart, is a good man, and so on. The entire interview played out like Prince Charles’ and Diana’s awkward engagement interview when Charles questioned “whatever in love” actually meant. Much like Charles and Diana circa 1981, the interview made it clear: Trump and Pence were not in love, though they’re certainly trying very, very hard to make it so.
A rational Republican may have wished that Pence didn’t necessarily have to hesitate when asked whether or not McCain was, in fact, a war hero. Pence and the rest of rational America likely thought McCain should be considered one. They probably also wished that Pence didn’t have to mince his words on his Iraq War vote, or retract his sane tweet about Muslim immigrants. They could only hold out hope that Pence is actually a double agent, but that’s an unlikely scenario as Pence is wholly complicit in Trump’s perpetual political faux pas.
Compare that to Clinton’s and Kaine’s 60 Minutes interview, a more conventional affair. While Clinton and Trump have been similar in their unlikability, Clinton plays by a political rulebook. However, Kaine was down-to-earth and easy to like. He presented himself as a politician who devoted his life to public service, was deeply affected by gun violence due to the Virginia Tech shootings that happened while he was governor, praised Republican Speaker Paul Ryan for his bipartisan efforts, and even quoted the book of Hebrews. While many Democrats argued that Clinton should have picked a more progressive running mate to excite the Bernie Sanders supporters, it became clear: whether or not it will pay off, Clinton wanted to pander to disenchanted Republicans and decided that a more moderate VP pick was a risk worth taking, especially if he’s going to quote Bible verses.
As the interview continued, however, it’s hard not to wonder whether or not Kaine would have been a better Democratic presidential candidate. And, like the Trump and Pence interview, it’s hard not to conjure the thought of a Kaine candidacy when reporter Scott Pelley asked Clinton about her litany of political sins—the private email server, Benghazi, and the unshakeable public opinion of corruption that hounds her. Then, one ponders: Kaine wouldn’t have had to be in proximity to any of these questions if he were running for president; similarly, Pence wouldn’t have to have to answer to any of Trump’s outlandish delusions if he were running for president.
So imagine an election where Pence and Kaine were running for president. Perhaps the Republicans wouldn’t be as divided: a convention anointing Pence as their nominee would attract the Bush family, McCain, and Romney as speakers. Unlike the current state of things, the Democrats, and even some independents would support Kaine; he may even use the opportunity to select a progressive VP candidate. The truth is, Kaine doesn’t have the same baggage as Clinton that has made her a polarizing figure among Republicans and Democrats alike and his boring political history could potentially overshadow the ideological differences that endure in Democratic politics. For once, the status quo may have been more innocuous, unifying, and hopeful than the symbolic bombast of a businessman with no political experience and a female politician with a controversial political presence.
Alas, it’s 2016. The possibility of a Pence or Kaine presidency feels like a specter of a distant past where old white men dominated American politics, campaigned on their party’s platforms, and hid their baggage from the public eye. Yet here is an election that transcends what we have come to know about American politics because this is what the voters demanded. Trump and Clinton are candidates who would have been publicly destroyed just four years ago. Four years ago, Mitt Romney arguably blew an election because he accused 47-percent of Americans for not paying income tax. Since then, Trump has insulted immigrants, women, and the disabled; Clinton has been carrying around over two decades of political baggage that spans from her husband’s presidency to her ties to Wall Street to her Iraq War vote. But people, against all odds, support them for who they are. Sure, there is the casual “but” in their deliberations, but there is no such thing as the perfect president. And with November only a few months away, it’s time to let the self-inflicted doubts fade.