They call it the debate that meant nothing. That’s true if your mind is focused on November 8, as most minds are. But if you care to gaze a little further into the future than that, Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate revealed something big: a deep appetite among traditional Republicans for traditional Republicanism.
Governor Mike Pence appeared on the stage on Tuesday night as a candidate of strong defense, traditional alliances, social conservatism, lower taxes, and limited government—all things that have been a little out of style in the past 18 months. Pence, however, made the strategic decision that this message was a message Republican voters would now welcome—and judging by the first reaction among Republicans and Republican-leaners, Pence got that decision right.
Pence chose not to play the part of Donald Trump’s defense attorney. He did not come to rebut, to mitigate, or to justify Trump’s words or actions. He evaded and parried almost every Trump-specific attack, in order to champion Republicanism as it existed pre-Trump—and as he seems to hope it will re-emerge post-Trump.
Many in the media, like my Atlantic colleague James Fallows, have worried about “normalizing” Trump by accepting the unacceptable. Pence was normalizing Trump in a very different way: by refusing to accept the unacceptable. In this, Pence prefigured one possible way that mainstream Republicans will deal with the Trump candidacy after it’s all over.
The Trump candidacy succeeded because of a massive revolt among rank-and-file Republicans against their leaders. Should the Trump candidacy fail, as now seems likely, those leaders stand ready to deny that the revolt ever happened. Instead, they’ll have a story of a more or less normal Republican undone only because (as Pence said last night) “he’s not a polished politician.” The solution for 2020? Bring back the professionals—and return to business as usual.
It’s unlikely to work. But you can understand why it’s an attractive message to a party elite that discovered to its horror that it had lost its base and lost its way.
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