At this point in his (not quite) two weeks as the Republican Party’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is probably wondering what he’s gotten himself into. His running mate, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, is in the midst of a remarkable political meltdown that has him sniping at top Republican leaders and picking an unwinnable fight with the grieving parents of a dead American soldier.
As a matter of tradition, vice presidential candidates are supposed to subordinate their own thoughts and positions on questions of politics and policy -- at least in terms of their public statements -- to those of their presidential running mate.
Doing so has sometimes resulted in charges of hypocrisy and outright mockery. George H.W. Bush was mercilessly lampooned by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau for having reversed himself so often that he finally “put his political manhood in a blind trust” halfway through the Reagan years, in order to protect it from further compromise.
So far, Pence appears to be taking a different and very unusual tack. In just the past week, he has issued statements or made comments directly at odds with things that Trump has said. In some cases he has tried to smooth over the differences with careful language, but in others he has appeared to simply take a position opposed to Trump’s.
On Tuesday, for example, Trump pointedly refused to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan for reelection in his upcoming primary. Ryan is likely to win with or without Trump’s endorsement, but the refusal was politically shocking.
The next day, Pence gave a phone interview to Fox News in which he said, “I strongly support Paul Ryan, strongly endorse his re-election ... He is a longtime friend. He's a strong conservative leader. I believe we need Paul Ryan in leadership in the Congress of the United States.”
He went on to claim that Trump himself had “strongly encouraged” the endorsement from his prospective second-in-command, even though he had said he wasn’t prepared to do so, a claim that has to be taken with a considerable amount of salt.
Odd as the episode was, it wasn’t even the first in the men’s budding partnership.
On the final day of the Republican convention, the newly minted vice presidential nominee staked out a position completely at odds with Trump’s on the question of NATO. The nominee had suggested that the U.S. might not honor its treaty obligations to NATO countries if Trump decided that they had not paid their fair share.
The U.S. would “absolutely” abide by its treaty agreements, Pence told PBS. “We'll uphold our treaty obligations, including the mutual defense agreement that is NATO.”
Last week, Trump made waves by suggesting that Russian hackers who infiltrated the Democratic National Committee might be helpful in tracking down emails that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton erased before turning over to investigators a private email server that she controversially used while serving as secretary of state.
Trump claimed to be joking, but not before enduring a firestorm of criticism for appearing to try to enlist a foreign power to intervene illegally in a U.S. election.
Pence, by contrast, issued a release treating the attack on the DNC as a bipartisan problem about the integrity of U.S. elections.
“The FBI will get to the bottom of who is behind the hacking. If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences.”
And it went on and on. Khizr Khan, the father of a slain U.S. soldier said at the Democratic convention that Trump’s proposed Muslim immigration ban would keep out people like his son, Capt. Humayun Khan, who came from Pakistan as a toddler. Trump responded with days of attacks on Khan and his family.
Pence, by contrast, issued a statement saying nothing at all negative about the Khans, while trying to provide some cover for Trump.
“Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American,” he said. However, even after that statement was released, Trump continued to call Khizr Khan’s statement “vicious” and suggested that the Khan family might want to allow terrorists to enter the country.
At a time when running mates generally strive to reflect the greatest possible unity, Donald Trump and Mike Pence aren’t just singing from different hymnals. They aren’t even in the same church.