There are multiple reports that Mike Pence will be Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate. If he is, how will he explain away his support for the very same free trade deals that Trump has been bashing for more than a year?
Pence represents the staunch right wing of the Republican party establishment, and promises to be someone who will reassure major corporate donors and evangelical activists alike. But that means Pence is miles away with Trump on some key issues—for example, he fiercely opposed Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims travelling to the US.
Given that a Muslim ban is almost certainly unconstitutional, the more important disagreement is on free trade. Trump says that foreign countries are “killing us” and has speculated about a 45% tariff on imports. But Pence, like most economic conservatives, has been a staunch supporter of these deals—in particular, he backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration with twelve nations around the Pacific rim.
Pence also defended the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and continued trade with China during his 14 years in Congress.
Exploiting resentment over the export-driven growth of China has been a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign. The idea that corporations are conspiring to move American jobs abroad is part and parcel with his narrative of immigrants taking American jobs at home—even as his own businesses embraced both practices.
The decision by one US company, Carrier, to move a manufacturing plant from Pence’s own state of Indiana to Mexico became a signature moment in Trump’s primary run.
If Pence joins the ticket, will Trump soften his stance—as he has hinted he might—saying that once he negotiates the deals, they will be alright? Or will Pence tone down his own strongly held views?
Either way, the pick will blunt his ability to attack Hillary Clinton on trade. Though she backed TPP negotiations as the chief diplomat in the Obama administration, she was not in office when the talks were concluded and opposes the deal, due in no small part to Senator Bernie Sanders’ left-wing primary challenge. It seems likely that her running mate will also be on the record opposing the deal.
As much as a Pence pick would reassure the GOP establishment, it won’t hush whispers that Trump is simply the next Republican politician to embrace the rhetoric of populism while making policy for elites.