S.E. Cupp: Why, Mike Pence? Why?

Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

S.E. Cupp: At one time I thought Mike Pence was future of GOP; then he OKd Indiana's religious freedom act

Cupp: As Trump's running mate, two possible fates await: wither in irrelevance in White House or spectacular loss against unpopular Clinton

CNN  — 

I’ve long admired Mike Pence and have written approvingly of his tenure in the House, his job as Indiana governor and his presidential ambitions for years. A few years ago, I interviewed him for a magazine cover story, and again while working at MSNBC. At one time I thought he was the future of the Republican Party.

Then, in 2015, Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act happened.

The problem wasn’t that the law – which allowed a business owner to raise religion as a defense when an anti-discrimination lawsuit is presented – was so odious, despite Hillary Clinton, Apple CEO Tim Cook, and Miley Cyrus’ contention that it was.

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Trump and Pence have very different styles
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Religious freedom laws were already on the books in liberal states like Rhode Island and Connecticut, and a federal RFRA was passed and voted for by Rep. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Edward Kennedy, and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The problem with the Indiana law was that because it was so poorly worded, delivered, and then reworked, it pleased exactly no one. Liberals cried intolerance. Social conservatives said Pence caved by altering it. Others still, including me, argued that ceding more authority to the government to police discrimination in the private sector will not end discrimination.

The other problem? Mike Pence was openly thinking about running for president. The predictable foes pounced, and Pence saw his approval rating fall from 62% to 47%.

So, at the state house he remained, where he passed what he called the largest tax cuts in Indiana’s history and yet still suffers from a 40% approval rating, according to a May poll.

Now that he has been tapped as Donald Trump’s running mate, his political career will end in one of two ways:

In a Trump White House he will wither in irrelevance, save for suffering countless headaches courtesy of an unpredictable, egomaniacal political neophyte who thinks there are 12 articles in the Constitution and that he can bring back water boarding.

Or, he will crash in spectacular fashion as he is forced to defend Trump’s impolitic ideas and undignified rhetoric on the campaign trail, only to lose to one of the most damaged and disliked opponents in the history of presidential elections.

Why, Mike, why?

Pence has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order.”

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He once guided me around the Indiana governor’s office to point out all his favorite art and memorabilia. Portraits of Herman Hudson, who founded the African-American studies department at Indiana University, and William Henry Harrison. A painting he said was displayed at President Lincoln’s funeral. A red telephone on his desk that his wife, Karen, gave him for Christmas – to which only she has the number.

He told me of an encounter with President Reagan when Pence was only 29, in which he praised Reagan and made him blush. Pence gushed about Reagan’s humility.

He was one of few Republicans to draw a distinction between the failures of negative campaigning in the 2012 presidential election and the success of positive campaigning in local elections. “I’m someone who really believes that one of the reasons for our success in a difficult election year here in Indiana was we spent all the resources in our campaign articulating a positive vision for an even better Indiana. We spoke aspirationally.”

To wit: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it,” he told me in 2013. “I understand politics is about addition and not subtraction.”

So why would an otherwise serious, positive and thoroughly conservative governor take on such an execrable assignment?

Conservative radio host Steve Deace essentially makes the argument that Pence has lost so much allure, it’s his only chance at a bigger platform.

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Meet Vice President Mike Pence
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“Ten years ago,” he says, “Mike Pence would have never done this. Five years ago. But because his stock with conservatives is so low right now, this may be his only chance to be a national figure.”

How this will endear Pence to conservatives – many of whom loathe Trump – is unclear. And Pence never struck me as a man driven by celebrity. If he were he could have joined the Trump train months ago and been one of his most visible and credible supporters. Instead, he quietly endorsed Ted Cruz.

He must, therefore, believe he can genuinely help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, and that achieving this singular goal vitiates all Trump’s inexpiable sins.

But can he? I was asked recently if Trump picked someone serious for vice president – like Mike Pence – would that make me decide to vote for him. Which is like asking if I’d marry an a**hole just because his older brother seemed nice. People vote for the top of the ticket.

Mike Pence certainly brings experience and a steady hand to Trump’s campaign, but two questions loom large:

One, will Pence have any sway over Trump’s bombast and political imprudence? No one has been able to tame the beast yet.

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Blackburn: Trump record with Blacks speaks for itself
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And two, if a voter is concerned about Trump’s inexperience and temperament, will Mike Pence quell their anxieties? Would anyone?

The problem for Trump’s campaign is that it is in such a weak position, it has to make an Experience pick. Mike Pence is designed to persuade Republican voters it’s safe to vote for him.

If Trump were better positioned, he could choose a New Voter pick, someone who could help reach undecideds in the middle and on the left, women, minorities and millennials. But Trump is still stuck working on his own constituents. Not a great place to be.

I still admire Mike Pence, and wish him well. I suppose there’s a third outcome for his political career – Trump and Pence Make America Great Again! – and in 2024, Pence becomes the 46th president of the United States.

Anything’s possible.