But, as many commentators quickly noted, Pence managed that only by strenuously ignoring much of what Trump has actually said during his mercurial career. In the process, Pence also wished away the disruptive and discontented forces in the GOP coalition that powered Trump’s nomination.
Repeatedly, Pence softened what Trump has said, ignored it, or, when cornered, simply denied it. Though Pence forcefully prosecuted the case for change, the cumulative impression he left was that he did not defend so much of what Trump has said because he too considered it indefensible.
In fact, on that front, the evening could have been even tougher for Pence. Tim Kaine pressed Pence primarily about Trump’s praise of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his derogatory comments about women and undocumented Mexican immigrants. Kaine repeatedly tied Pence in knots simply by asking him to defend Trump’s own declarations on issues such as NATO’s future role and the advisability of more nations, like Saudi Arabia and Japan, obtaining nuclear weapons. That allowed Kaine to frequently take the offense, despite his lackluster defense of President Obama’s record and Clinton’s agenda.
Pence’s frequent inability or unwillingness to defend his running mate’s plain words on Putin or nuclear proliferation foreshadowed how difficult it would be for congressional Republicans to follow Trump down those roads if he wins. Yet all of that only scratched the surface of issues that would divide a President Trump, and the heavily blue-collar voters who elevated him, from most congressional Republicans and the GOP’s key business supporters.
For a more complete list, a good place to start is my conversation with House Speaker Paul Ryan last week at the Washington Ideas Forum co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. In the interview, Ryan did his best, as throughout the campaign, to avoid discussing Trump while highlighting the “Better Way” agenda that House Republicans have crafted. And Ryan made a genuine plea for voters to provide Republicans unified control of Congress and the White House.
But when I asked Ryan about Trump’s threat to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement if Mexico and Canada do not substantially renegotiate it, he crisply demurred: “Let's work on improving and not talk about withdrawing [from] it.” When I asked if Ryan would drop his plan to convert Medicare into a premium support system or to reform Social Security because Trump has repeatedly said he opposes any changes in the programs, the speaker made clear he would not. “If we blow another presidency and don't fix these entitlement problems and then get around to it after the boomers are well under retirement, it will be ugly reforms that pull the rug out from under people after they're retired,” he said.