CLEVELAND – The few dozen rank-and-file House members who were visible and talkative at the Republican convention this week are departing as members of two camps:
Those who declare wholehearted enthusiasm for Donald Trump remain the clear minority. The rest are at least professing their acceptance in the name of party unity — with many of them declaring that the addition of their former colleague Mike Pence to the ticket has given them sufficient hope that the general election and a Trump presidency might work out in the end.
Having been a congressional power player for a dozen years before becoming Indiana’s governor, these lawmakers say, Pence will be a reassuring force this fall for some badly needed message discipline with a more optimistic and forward-looking tone.
And if Trump gets to the White House, they say, a Vice President Pence can be counted on to be a terrific middle man between a president without any government experience and a House GOP Conference brimming with ideas for governance.
Rarely has a running mate, who’s usually chosen to send a particular signal to the general electorate, become so quickly crucial to bolstering confidence in a nominee from the ultimate insiders in the party’s congressional wing.
Trump said from the start of his vice-presidential search that he’d put a priority on finding someone who could help him navigate Congress . This week made clear how much members of Congress, especially from the House, are counting on Pence to help them navigate Trump.
Pence signaled his understanding of the task with a kind of coded message Wednesday night. “A Better Way” is the title of the multifaceted House GOP policy manifesto that Speaker Paul D. Ryan has produced this summer, and the vice presidential nominee made sure to work that phrase into his acceptance speech:
“On issue by issue, he and I will take our case to the voters, pointing out the failures of the Obama-Clinton agenda and showing a better way. We will win the hearts and minds of the American people with an agenda for a stronger and more prosperous America.”
The paragraph’s implicit promise is that majority House Republicans would gain some leverage in the legislative process after a decade of frustrations, stymied in the past six years by President Barack Obama and on the outs before that during four years in the minority.
Concerns that their powerlessness would continue grew worse last month. When Trump came to Capitol Hill for his first getting-to-know-you meeting with House Republicans. He left them bewildered and depressed by coming off as wholly uninformed about the Constitution and especially its Article I legislative powers.
“We’re itching to get going on this, and Mike Pence knows how to make that happen,” Rep. Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania said on the convention floor, pulling a copy of the glossy “A Better Way” summary brochure from his breast pocket.
Three members of Trump’s small congressional inner circle — Lou Barletta, Tom Marino and Mike Kelly — are likewise members from Pennsylvania and have spent the week acting as eager surrogates for the nominee on TV and at delegation breakfasts.
“He’s leading a populist movement and I’m glad to see it, and I want to be a part of it,” Marino, sent to Congress in the tea party wave of 2010, said during a round of TV interviews, “because we need to get some of the maverick spirit back to Washington like we had when I was elected.”
Most members who’ve come to town, though, are like Rothfus and have spent their time tending to parochial political concerns and fending off queries about Trump with faint praise coupled with commitments to party unity.
Emblematic of this was Jeb Hensarling of Texas, whose status as chairman of the Financial Services Committee got him a Wednesday night seat among the Trump family in the VIP box at the Quicken Loans Arena. But his state’s delegation breakfast Thursday morning, he described Trump as not even his 18th choice for president in a GOP field of 17. Still he declared: “But he is my nominee and I am going to give him 110 percent.”
A Pipeline to Vice President
What unites both the Trump enthusiasts and the late-comers, though, is not only their happiness with Pence but also their pride that his selection perpetuates a little-recognized trend: Now four of the past five GOP candidates for vice president, and six of the past 10, counted the House as their highest elected office.
“In the Senate they all just think they want to be president, but in the House we produce real leadership,” boasted Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, who is backing Trump out of party unity and Pence out of genuine respect.
“Picking someone from the people’s House, designed to be closest to the voters, makes perfect sense. It means picking someone with boots-on-the-ground experience living with American constituents every day, which gives the ticket a great kind of balance,” says Kelly.
“You’d think the Republican way would be to go more often with governors, to emphasize their interest in giving power back to the states,” says David Eisenhower, a grandson of the former president and a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“But history shows more nominees than Trump decided they needed a line into Congress in a big way, because no matter what the size of government, somebody’s got to write the laws.”
Adds Julian E. Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton: “Of course the base of Republican strength in recent years has been the House as well as gubernatorial races, so it is natural that Republicans would select officials from this pool of talent.”
That said, only two House veterans have been part of a winning ticket in in the past half century, former Rep. George Bush of Texas winning the vice presidency in 1980 and 1984 and former Rep. Dick Cheney doing likewise in 2000 and 2004. Unsuccessful were Rep. Bill Miller of New York in 1964, former Rep. Jack Kemp of New York in 1996 and Ryan in 2012.
And the last sitting House member to win national office? John Nance Garner, who gave up being speaker of the House to become President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second term vice president and then famously dismissed the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
House Republicans are banking on Pence not having the same reaction during the next four years.