Video: Mike Pence praises Trump, then halfheartedly endorses Cruz

Trump fans deserve to have a laugh over this after all the hype this morning. Noah Rothman calls it less an endorsement than an apology, which is certainly how it feels. I’m not sure it qualifies as an endorsement at all. An endorsement is “You should vote for this guy and here’s why.” Pence’s message is “I’m voting for this guy but you should make up your own mind.” I’m not exaggerating; he specifically talks about voters making up their own minds at 3:25 of the second clip. Not only that, but he spends about as much time emphasizing that he’ll work his heart out for the eventual nominee (hint, hint) as he does in talking up Cruz. And as you’ll see in the first clip, the endorsement wasn’t even his top priority when the interview began. His top priority was giving a special shout-out to his pal Donald Trump:

I like and respect all three of the Republican candidates in the field. I particularly want to commend Donald Trump who I think has given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans with a lack of progress in Washington, D.C.

I am also particularly grateful that Donald Trump has taken a strong for Hoosier jobs when we saw jobs of the Carrier company abruptly announcing they are leaving Indiana. Not for another state, but for Mexico.

I am grateful for his voice in the national debate.

Then he endorsed Cruz. (I needed two clips to show you the whole thing because the “yay, Trump!” prelude was naturally edited out of the second one, which was posted by the Cruz campaign.) I’m in the weird position here of having predicted just a few hours ago that Pence would treat this as a check-the-box thing with plenty of pro-Trump blather to soothe his fans in Indiana yet feeling surprised anyway at just how pro forma it was. Pence could have pleased Trumpers and annoyed Cruzers by refusing to endorse; he could have pleased Cruzers and annoyed Trumpers by endorsing Cruz full-throatedly; or he could have annoyed Trumpers and Cruzers by endorsing Cruz but doing it so timidly that everyone who hears it walks away thinking, “Boy, Mike Pence didn’t seem too jazzed about that.” He tried to get too cute with pleasing both sides so he ended up behind door number three. In fairness to him, he’s up for reelection this year in a state where Cruz looks shaky whereas Scott Walker has two more years left in a state where Cruz always looked strong. But excuses aside, Phil Kerpen is right: In tone, Pence’s endorsement today was the opposite of Scott Walker’s effusive endorsement for Cruz in Wisconsin.

It’ll be the funniest thing ever, by the way, if Trump takes to Twitter to ream Pence out anyway despite his pitiful attempt to kiss Trump’s ass here. As it is, he’s going to spend the next four days on the trail in Indiana laughing at how lukewarm Pence’s support for Cruz was and gloating that Pence spent more time during his “endorsement” praising Trump than Cruz. So, good job, Mike.

I can’t remember who it was right now but a social-media pal floated a theory last night (update: it was Benjy Sarlin) that we might start seeing similar half-hearted endorsements of Cruz from big-name Republicans now that the race seems to be winding down. That seems paradoxical: Why back Cruz right at the moment when it seems like his chances have evaporated? But the answer is obvious — to get right with the conservative base, of course. If the naysayers are right about Trump being on track for an epic defeat this fall, there’s a fair chance that Trumpers will flee the party afterward and the GOP will revert to its identity as a fake-conservative party teeming with fake conservatives. If it does, the real conservatives who remain (plus some of the pretenders who will have conveniently forgotten how they voted this year) will care whether future candidates for higher office backed Cruz or Trump when the chips were down. Pence now gets to say “I backed Cruz” even though he did it as half-heartedly and apologetically as possible. Others may follow in the expectation that the risk of a backlash from Trumpers is low, and getting lower every day, the closer Trump gets to the nomination. As long as they do nothing that risks blocking his path to the nomination and take care to support him this fall once he’s the nominee, Trumpers won’t care if they endorse Cruz now. The longer Cruz’s odds get, the more of those endorsements you’re apt to see.

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