I'm with Vox's Matt Yglesias on last night's debate: Mike Pence pulled off a pretty good demonstration of how the GOP will continue after Trump loses in November: simply pretend The Donald never happened.
Republican Party elected officials in contested races around the country have been grappling with a basic but profound issue all year — how do you stand up for the GOP and conservative principles and against Hillary Clinton without getting sucked into defending every crazy, offensive, or weird thing that Donald Trump said? It can be a tough line to walk, as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte learned this week.
Debating Tim Kaine Tuesday night, Mike Pence taught a master class in how it’s done. Every time Kaine attacked, Pence parried and deftly shifted the conversation to something else entirely.
When Kaine demanded that Pence defend Trump’s secrecy on his taxes, Pence ducked and talked about how low taxes are good for economic growth. When Kaine offered an extended list of Trump insults that he said he couldn’t believe Pence would defend, Pence didn’t defend them — he pivoted to complaining about Clinton and the “basket of deplorables.” Pence was tight, disciplined, and focused on his talking points. He never took the bait, never let himself get dragged into unfavorable terrain, and simply ignored subjects he didn’t want to discuss.
It was a genuinely bravura performance, one that a passel of GOP senators and Congress members running in tough races ought to study. The problem is Trump is at the top of the ticket.
In other words, the GOP are already masters of gaslighting and fact-free rhetoric, so why wouldn't pretending Donald Trump is invisible not work in 2018 and 2020? Vox's Dara Lind follows up on this and a lot of it comes back to race:
The question is this: Has the median American voter has moved so far to the left on race in the last decade that she won’t get upset by the implication that America’s race problem runs so deep it probably includes her? (Democrats only other option is mastering the art of mobilization of nonwhite voters so thoroughly that they can change where the median voter is by changing the population of voters — a much tougher battle.)
Or is it just that Donald Trump, short-tempered and Twitter-fingered as he is, is such an anomaly that he liberates Democrats from the task of moderating their own message?
Mike Pence, by all appearances, believes the latter: that there is a large population of people who really don’t like being called racist but who, for Trump-specific reasons, don’t like Trump.
It’s not that Tim Kaine (or Clinton, or other Democrats) can’t defend their racial ideology. At least during the section on implicit bias — one of the clearest, most honest segments of the night — Kaine showed he was willing to address the meat of what Pence was saying.
But it’s not clear that Kaine (or Clinton, or other Democrats) think that those defenses will persuade enough of the American public. Kaine wasn’t satisfied simply to offer an explanation of what implicit bias actually is, and how it manifests itself in criminal justice. He felt the need to pivot to a riff on Donald Trump’s insults, and all the things the Republican nominee hasn’t apologized for.
The political theory behind what Mike Pence was doing Tuesday night — the theory behind the new law-and-order conservatism — is that without Donald Trump to pivot to, Democrats won’t win the argument on race with “mainstream” America.
In other words, pretend that somehow, Donald Trump's overt racism does not represent the GOP as a whole, and there are plenty of Republicans who are going to buy into that and move on after November. The Village Media certainly will.
So yes, expect the "Pence Defense" going forward. "We're not racist, gay-hating Islamophobic bigots, that was Donald Trump, and you're the real racists for thinking otherwise!" will be the order of the day until at least 2020.
How well they will be able to get away with it depends on a number of things, but that's what's coming for sure.