It would be surprising if Mike Pence didn’t acquit himself well in Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate.
The Indiana governor and former leader of House conservatives is a model of rhetorical discipline who is genuinely well-versed in public policy issues and tends to go high when others go low. He is, in so many ways, everything that Donald Trump is not — including conservative at his core and kind to and about other people.
Regardless of whether he “wins” or “loses” the debate to Democratic vice presidential nominee and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Pence has an opportunity to showcase to the American people a simple truth that should reassure Republicans and terrify Democrats: the GOP has a deep and talented bench of future stars and Democrats, well, don’t. More important, he has a chance to become the avatar of an emergent Republican Party.
Pence will find himself in the uncomfortable position of defending not only his own ideas and the ticket’s platform but Trump’s incoherence, intemperate behavior and all-around boorishness. But given that only someone who accidentally drove a railroad spike through his or her own frontal lobe would vote for Trump or Clinton based on the outcome of this way-down-the-marquee VP contest, Pence’s challenge — and this is the best way to assess his success in the debate — is to help position himself and his party for 2020, 2024 and beyond.
While Trump’s platform is expressed as series of loosely connected conspiracy theories, he has tapped into frustration among a whole new generation of white working-class voters who are willing to give the Republican Party a dance. How Pence begins to frame the GOP appeal to that subset of the electorate — and whether he can do it in ways that also connect with women and minorities — will tell us a lot about whether Republicans can construct a policy rubric and messaging to match the talent of their young guns.
Democrats had exactly one viable candidate to share their ticket with Hillary Clinton, and, not unexpectedly, he got the slot. Kaine was the only one of the people Clinton considered who had experience in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas — and only because, like Clinton, he sought out committee assignments in the Senate that gave him national security credentials.
He’s as smart as they come. But he’s hardly electrifying, and he’ll be in his late sixties in eight years. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi — the best vote-counter of her generation — is 76. The next two Democrats in line, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, are 77 and 76, respectively. The new Democratic leader of the Senate in the next Congress, Charles Schumer, is already eligible for Medicare.
Of the 18 Democratic governors, 13 are the same age as Kaine or older. Of the remaining five, three are from states with four electoral votes or fewer. And few have talked about Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards or Oregon Gov. Kate Brown as the future of the party.
Democrats’ problem with millennial voters runs a little deeper than just Clinton. Their leaders are more than a generation removed from the concerns of the under-40 set.
Republicans, on the other hand, have an extraordinarily deep bench of politicians who would have made great vice presidential picks if any normal year.
Two of them, Pence and Paul Ryan, have actually been on the Republican ticket in the last two presidential elections. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker all have tremendous political gifts and the potential to make serious bids for national office. Indeed, the list of Republicans with future-of-the-party branded on their foreheads is too long for this space.
The problem for each and every one of them is that the Republican Party is not just fractured but splintered. Each has shown appeal to a segment of the GOP electorate, but none has found a way to unify the party. Democrats are split along traditional lines of progressivism and pragmatism, of the last generation and the next generation.
In the only vice presidential debate on the calendar, Pence will have a golden opportunity to begin gluing those pieces together. The thing to watch Tuesday night is whether he can find a way to unite the Trumpian Tea Party nihilists with the social and economic conservatives, the national security wing of the party and the establishment donors and thought leaders. If he can, he’ll illuminate a path to power for the GOP.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.