Tuesday’s vice presidential debate didn’t have the drama of last week’s bout between presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And it probably won’t have the same political impact, either.
Kaine was the more aggressive debater, frequently interrupting Pence to the point of rudeness. It was not a great look for the normally mild-mannered Democrat. On the other hand, he frequently brought up examples of outrageous behavior by Trump ― and Pence, for all of his Midwest pleasantries, was unable to defend or explain that behavior. In a focus group that pollster Frank Luntz convened for CBS, nearly every participant thought Pence won, yet none said it would change his or her vote.
But even though the debate is unlikely to alter the course of the campaign, it did reveal something important about how a Trump presidency might unfold.
Except for a handful of high-profile causes, like immigration and trade, Trump is likely to delegate a lot of the governing to his vice president.
Pence, after all, is more important than your typical vice presidential candidate, and not simply because, at 70, Trump would be older than even Ronald Reagan was when he first took office. This summer, when Trump’s aides approached Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) about accepting a place on the ticket, they reportedly promised him that he’d be in charge of both domestic and foreign policy. (According to the report, which appeared in The New York Times, the aides said Trump’s purview would be “making America great again.”)
A Trump adviser later disputed that account of the conversation. But given Trump’s lack of focus and attention to detail, the story is entirely plausible. Except for a handful of high-profile causes, like immigration and trade, Trump is likely to delegate a lot of the governing to his vice president ― and in many cases, simply defer to his vice president’s judgment.
That could unleash a torrent of conservative legislation.
An election that puts Trump and Pence in the West Wing almost certainly leaves Republicans in charge of Congress. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could work quickly to pass legislation of mutual interest and, in Pence, they’d find a powerful vice president almost entirely in synch with their interests.
Remember, before becoming governor, Pence was a leader in the Republican House, where, as chairman of the Republican Study Committee, he was directly involved in crafting policy proposals for the conservative wing of the caucus. He’s got a long record of advocating ultra-conservative policy, on both economic issues (he once championed Social Security privatization) and social issues (he’s a strong opponent of abortion rights).
Trump has run as a challenger to the Republican establishment. But in answer to a question about the economy on Tuesday night, Pence reminded everybody that a Trump administration would pursue many of the same policies the Republican establishment favors ― particularly early on:
We have a plan to get health care working again by lowering taxes across the board for working families, small businesses, and family farms, ending the war on coal that is hurting jobs, repealing Obamacare, lock, stock [and barrel] and repealing all of the executive orders Obama has signed that are stifling economic growth in this country.
Almost nobody is going to remember that quote, but it describes what would likely become the Trump administration agenda.
“Lowering taxes” is a reference to the Trump tax plan, which would indeed reduce rates ― something, undoubtedly, many people would appreciate. But it would do so in a way that would give windfalls to the wealthy and far less help to everybody else. It would also add something like $5 trillion in debt over the next 10 years, almost certainly undermining key programs that are crucial for both poor and middle-class Americans.
“Ending the war on coal” would mean undoing President Barack Obama’s new regulations on emissions, which probably wouldn’t revive the coal industry ― since its biggest threat right now is cheap natural gas. But it might undermine future efforts at fighting climate change at a time when rising sea levels are already causing flooding up and down the East Coast ― and when the international community is finally making headway on collective action.
“Repealing Obamacare” would mean getting rid of the law that conservatives hate and that, even its advocates admit, has problems. But it’d also mean yanking insurance away from many millions of people, taking away new consumer protections like limits on out-of-pocket spending, and allowing insurance companies to start denying coverage for pre-existing conditions again.
Pence reminded everybody that a Trump administration would pursue many of the same policies the Republican establishment favors.
The big focus on the campaign to date has been on character. That’s how it should be, given how wildly unfit Trump is for office. And actually, that might be the best thing about Pence’s presence on the ticket: his potential as a not-insane person in the White House to temper Trump’s worst instincts from time to time.
But policy substance matters too, because Trump would end up signing legislation if he becomes president ― and some of that legislation could have profound, far-reaching effects.
Trump likes to present himself as an anti-politician, but he’s done exactly what most politicians do when they campaign: promise things, like tax cuts that magically reduce the deficit, that are quite simply incompatible with one another. As president, Trump would have to face up to those contradictions. And on issues where he hasn’t taken a strong position or in which his base of supporters lacks a direct stake, Pence is likely to have an outsized influence over what Trump decides to do.
No, Trump hasn’t always been clear or consistent when it comes to public policy. He’s unpredictable and at the mercy of his own ego. But in what’s arguably his most consequential decision to date ― the choice of a running mate ― he picked a deeply conservative Republican with strong ties to the party’s leadership in Congress.
That says a lot about how Trump would actually govern, and it’s why the substance of Pence’s comments on Tuesday night are every bit as newsworthy as his opponent’s demeanor on stage.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.