Pundits say that Mike Pence performed better in his debate than Donald Trump did in his. I’m not so sure. Yes, Pence was better stylistically. He spoke more crisply. He more deftly pivoted away from uncomfortable subjects. But on both trade and national security, Pence hewed to the established conservative script. Trump discarded it. And of the two agendas, Trump’s is more popular, especially among Republicans. Ideologically, in other words, Pence didn’t do “better.” He did worse.
Pence debated the way Marco Rubio would have had he won the GOP nomination. First, he eschewed economic nationalism. Pence mentioned “trade” only three times. He didn’t cite NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership once. In his debate with Hillary Clinton, by contrast, Trump mentioned “trade,” NAFTA, and TPP 17 times.
This contrast is part of the reason Trump, rather than someone like Pence, won the GOP nomination. In recent years, Republican support for free trade has collapsed. Back in 2006, a Pew Research Center poll found that Republicans were 16 points more likely to say that free trade had helped rather than hurt their family’s financial situation. But when Politico and the Harvard School of Public Health asked about free trade’s impact last month, Republicans said it hurt their community by a margin of 29 points. In his debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump articulated these grievances against economic globalization. Pence, for all his polish, did not.
Pence sounded like Rubio on national security too. Echoing the GOP foreign-policy establishment, he attacked Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for retreating from America’s imperial role. He said Clinton’s “weak foreign policy” had “emboldened the aggression of Russia” in Ukraine. He demanded that in Syria “the provocations by Russia need to be met by American strength,” including even America air strikes against Bashar Assad’s pro-Russian regime. He called for deepening America’s commitment to NATO by deploying missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. And he proposed strengthening America’s Asian alliances in order to challenge Beijing in the South China Sea and preserve “the demilitarization of the Korean peninsula.”
Pence has forgotten his running mate’s slogan: America First. During the primaries, Trump stressed that his problem with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wasn’t that they had retreated too much from America’s imperial role but that they had not retreated enough. New military commitments to NATO? In July, Trump told the New York Times he might not even uphold America’s current ones. Contain North Korea’s nuclear program? In March, Trump told the Times that, “every time North Korea raises its head, you know, we get calls from Japan and we get calls from everybody else, and ‘Do something.’ And there’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore … We’re not a rich country …. we cannot be the policeman of the world.” Challenge Russia over Ukraine? Trump told the Times that, “we are the least affected by what happens with Ukraine because we’re the farthest away … Why is it that countries that are bordering the Ukraine and near the Ukraine—why is it that they’re not more involved? Why is it that they are not more involved? Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things?”
On Syria, Pence demanded that the U.S. confront Moscow and reassert America’s regional dominance, which is pretty much what Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina demanded during the primaries. And Trump slammed them for it. “They want to start World War III over Syria,” he declared in last September. “Give me a break. You know, Russia wants to get ISIS, right? We want to get ISIS. Russia is in Syria — maybe we should let them do it? Challenged in a November debate by Bush for his non-interventionist stances on Ukraine and Syria, Trump said the world was laughing at America’s imperial overstretch: “‘Keep going, you dummies, keep going. Protect us,’” Trump mimicked. “We have to get smart. We can’t continue to be the policeman of the world. We are $19 trillion dollars, we have a country that’s going to hell, we have an infrastructure that’s falling apart. Our roads, our bridges, our schools, our airports, and we have to start investing money in our country.”
Here again, Trump is more in touch with ordinary Republicans than Pence is. In recent years, Republicans haven’t only turned against free trade. They’ve turned against America’s imperial role more generally. A Pew Research Survey in March found that 62 percent of Republicans—as opposed to only 47 percent of Democrats—now want the United States to let other countries deal with their own problems. In June, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only 57 percent of Republicans—as opposed to 81 percent of Democrats—consider NATO “essential” to America’s security.
Pence’s performance last night thrilled Republican elites because it conjured up a post-Trump future in which the GOP returns to normal, in which the party rededicates itself to economic globalization and military expansion. But that may be an illusion. As the GOP base grows more working class, it contains fewer voters sympathetic to a Chamber of Commerce, Weekly Standard view of the world. Republican elites can pretend that the only problem with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that Obama didn’t send enough soldiers to fight in them. But there’s a reason Trump insisted during the primaries that he opposed invading Iraq, and keeps insisting so today. He knows America’s post-9/11 wars have made Republicans, as well as Democrats, bitterly skeptical of the costs of maintaining America’s imperial footprint.
In his debate with Clinton, Trump mentioned ISIS more often than Pence did in his debate with Tim Kaine. Yet while Pence mentioned Syria nine times, Trump didn’t mention it once. That’s partly because of the questions they were asked. But it’s also because Trump understands that while GOP elites care about ensuring that America rather than Russia holds sway in the Middle East, many ordinary Republicans don’t. They just want the terrorists dead.
Pence may be smoother than Trump. He may be less obnoxious. But for all his bigotry and idiocy, Trump understands something that Pence does not: There are limits to American power. He understands that because America’s resources are finite, America’s foreign goals must be too. He understands that simultaneously confronting every adversary on every front is not a strategy. It’s the opposite of a strategy.
Unfortunately for GOP elites, ordinary Republicans understand that too. Which is why I’m not so sure that Mike Pence is the Republican Party’s future. And I’m not so sure he did as well last night as everyone thinks.