Is Mike Pence the frontrunner for the nomination in 2020 if Trump loses?

I keep seeing this point made today in the wake of Pence’s debate win. I do not understand it.

Which segment of the GOP will supposedly be Pence’s base in 2020? Conservatives? There’ll be gobs of conservative candidates running four years from now in the expectation that whoever wins the nomination will be a near-lock to end 12 years of Democratic rule in the general election. Pence will start the race with higher name recognition than most but also with a liability that none of the competition has, namely, the stigma of having been a top shill for Trump. If conservatives are looking to take back the party in 2020 and put the Trump interregnum behind them, the last guy they’d want to do that is Trump’s handpicked right-hand man. Especially since, as we saw after the RFRA debacle in Indiana, Pence isn’t all that trusted by conservatives in the first place. There’s no reason to choose him over, say, Scott Walker or a fresh face like Ben Sasse or Tom Cotton. On the contrary, if you dislike Trump, there’s a good reason to prefer them to him. And not only would Pence have the stink of Trump on him, he’d have the stink of defeat this November, fairly or not. Again, why not try something new?

How about Trumpers, though? Will they rally to Pence as the keeper of the flame? That’s possible, I guess, if Pence remakes himself as an ardent nationalist and starts drooling over foreign fascists like Putin, but I’m not sure he’s capable of it. He was much more Romneyesque last night than he was Trumpian in his policy preferences. He’s made some noise lately about changing his mind on trade deals like TPP to get square with Trump, but Pence has been a devout free-trader for most of his career and ended up pushing touchback amnesty as part of immigration reform while in Congress 10 years ago. I don’t know why any Trumper would trust that his conversion to nationalism, if it happens, is sincere and durable. I also don’t know that Pence would convert in the first place. I think he’s more likely to revert to his conservative roots after the election in the expectation that everything will be back to normal within the party in 2020. Remember — the whole reason Pence is on the ticket this year is that he’s not a nationalist. Trump picked him on the advice of his advisors, who thought that naming a movement conservative as veep would unite the party and reassure Trump skeptics on the right. Trumpers support him now only because he’s working to the same end that they are in trying to get Trump elected. If and when that effort fails, what use will they have for him?

And all of this assumes that the nationalists and reactionaries who favor Trump do so primarily because they agree with him on policy, with Pence capable of filling the void in 2020 simply by following Trump’s agenda in the primaries. Not so. Trumpism is as much style as substance. When his fans are interviewed about why they like him, they’re less likely to say that they agree with him on TPP than that he’s “politically incorrect” or that “he says what I’m thinking.” His boorishness gives him authenticity and makes him a scandal to the political class that his base despises. Stylistically, Pence is the polar opposite. He’s soft-spoken, devoutly Christian, has publicly forsworn personal attacks in campaigning, and instinctively plays it safe when faced with political dilemmas (e.g. RFRA). Pence is not a guy you can easily imagine standing up at a rally and saying, “We should waterboard the sh*t out of these terrorist scumbags.” Without that approach, he’s not really “politically incorrect” even if he agrees with the policy. Someone like Chris Christie is far better suited temperamentally to play the tough-guy centrist authoritarian inheritor to Trump. Or Rudy Giuliani, if not for the fact that Rudy will be 76 in 2020. It’s frankly hard for me to imagine Trump endorsing Pence in 2020, especially if Christie’s out there putting on a no-nonsense New-York-guy show about how we need a national moat or whatever,

There are other people who can play this part better than Pence, and they will play it. Trump did well enough in the primaries this year to guarantee that. If anyone tries to execute a too-cute melding of nationalism and conservatism on policy, it’ll be Ted Cruz because that’s what Cruz does — he triangulates opportunistically, and transparently. Convince him that he can’t win the nomination as a “constitutional conservative” and he’ll start rethinking free trade. But I don’t know that anyone can really marry Trumpism and traditional conservatism on substance apart from the few places where they obviously overlap, like immigration. I don’t know that they have to, either. Someone who’s Trumpian in affect, i.e. unapologetically and provocatively anti-PC and overtly contemptuous of “the system,” but also sufficiently even-keeled and well-versed on policy that he doesn’t ring any “we can’t possibly give this guy nuclear weapons” bells in interviews will probably do well in the primaries no matter which side of the nationalist/conservative divide he tilts towards policy-wise. Pence has the second part of that equation covered. Not the first, and he never will.

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