Donald Trump had no trouble blasting away the Republican Party establishment, riding a movement that was sick and tired of GOP betrayal and ineffectiveness.
But his victory in the primaries left some socially-conservative Republicans wary; Trump’s pro-choice past and his soft stance on issues like gay marriage and transgender bathroom choice were red flags to Christian conservatives. One of his worst campaign moments came when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews got him to say that women should face “some punishment” in a hypothetical abortion scenario. This over-the-top response didn’t signify strength on abortion; it signified someone who hadn’t studied the issue in depth.
Trump’s struggle with evangelicals has been overblown; he won them in most of the primary contests, even with overtly-Christian candidates like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson in the race. His supporters may question his commitment to socially-conservative causes, but they see him as a fierce combatant at a time when many Republicans have seemingly given up trying to defeat Democrats.
Still, Trump’s decision to put Indiana Governor Mike Pence on the ticket was an inspired one. Pence, whose conservative philosophy is similar to Cruz’s, has been a consistent culture warrior in his home state and one of the Republican Party’s biggest pro-life champions. This year, Pence signed into law some of the country’s toughest abortion restrictions – a law we can expect to hear a great deal of criticism about over the next four months.
Pence is also known for supporting Indiana’s religious freedom bill last year – a bill that aimed to protect business owners who wanted to abstain from gay wedding events. The controversial bill went through, but Pence later revised it under pressure from the Indiana business community. The revisions earned him some scorn from allies, but he retains his reputation as a stoic defender of Christian values and the rights of the unborn.
“Donald Trump is a good man, and he will make a great president of the United States,” Pence said on Saturday as he accepted the VP spot. “I know what all of America will soon know: These are good people.”
That may be the most important message Pence can deliver to the country as we move into the general election. Social conservatives want to feel good about voting for Trump in November; they want to do it without relying too heavily on the “he’s better than the alternative” argument. They want to know that President Trump will have our backs when it comes to these cultural touchstones.
Pence brings a lot to the table – credibility, experience, popularity – but his biggest contribution may be a sense of normalcy. This is a change year, and that can be nerve-wracking. By choosing Pence, Trump has calmed the waters when he could have gone for a more explosive VP. It’s another brilliant decision in a year filled with them, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Hillary Clinton’s polls are plummeting, but Democrats are still holding on to one thin strand of optimism: Trump’s numbers are stagnant.
Choosing Pence could be the first step towards stealing their last bit of hope.