CLEVELAND — For all of the spin, the negativity of Monday at the Republican National Convention seemed inescapable for much of Tuesday. An open revolt among delegates on the convention floor, doom-and-gloom speeches, and accusations of plagiarism can do that.
Yet none of it seemed to faze Mike Pence.
The vice presidential nominee and Indiana governor showed up at a luncheon of the American Conservative Union, taking the stage to applause. He cracked self-deprecating jokes and spun an interesting yarn about the time he made Ronald Reagan blush.
The year was 1988 and he was running for Congress.
“The president graciously asked as the cameras were clicking, he said, ‘Mike, how’s the campaign going?’ ” Pence said. “And I said, ‘It’s going fine, but I’ve got something I’d like to say.’ And he said, ‘Say it.’ And I said, ‘Mr. President, I would just like to thank you for everything you’ve done for this country. And everything you’ve done to encourage my generation of Americans to believe in this country again.’ ”
Pence even did an impression of Reagan and it was actually pretty good.
This is the Pence I remember from my years in Indiana.
The country could be going to hell in a handbasket, which is apparently what the convention speakers believe, and he could be signing legislation that would make life even worse for millions of people, but by God, he will find a way to sound positive about it.
This classically Hoosier trait — think, if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all — is one that should serve Pence well Wednesday night when he officially accepts the nomination for vice president.
He will give the keynote speech and it will be the only chance he’s had to tell his story to the American people.
Previous attempts — on “60 Minutes,” at a hastily organized news conference Friday to announce Pence’s ascension to running-mate status - ended with Donald Trump hogging the spotlight.
To be sure, Trump is under a lot of pressure. Revolts among delegates aren’t good. Neither are accusations that your wife recited a plagiarized speech from the wife of a president you’ve been mocking.
But I dare say that his running mate Pence is under even more pressure. Because if Trump is the ringleader of this circus, then the Indiana governor is the lion tamer, or at least he’d better be.
Pence needs to perform. The comparisons are sure to be rampant. After all, Pence follows the tough, polished acts of House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who all have earlier speaking slots.
Those men can help bring the Republican Party and get it back on some sort of rational, coherent track. But that means nothing if Pence can’t do the same.
Already, delegates from California and other states are head over heels for Pence. The ones I’ve asked about him tend to use words like “solid,” “experienced,” “calm,” “measured” and “knowledgeable.” I admit, I’m no fan of the man, but he is indeed all of those things when compared to Trump.
To the broader American public, though, Pence, like Indiana, remains largely a mystery.
If I had a dollar for every time someone I met in California confused Indianapolis for Minneapolis, or some nonexistent city in Michigan, I’d be a millionaire. The state doesn’t typically make national news, unless it’s the Indianapolis 500.
What’s worse, what people outside of the Republican base of social conservatives do know about Pence are his disastrous policies that, for a brief time, legalized discrimination against gays and lesbians, and cost his state millions of dollars in lost business.
Let’s also not forget that while Pence spent a decade in Congress, he hasn’t held national office since 2012, which for some millennial voters with bad memories could seem like a lifetime ago.
So, on Wednesday night, Pence not only must be his normally calm and optimistic self. He also has to show voters how he can handle Trump, starting with offering the kind of specifics that Trump and his surrogates have failed to provide so far.
Voters need details about what exactly Trump and Pence plan to do to make America great again — and building a wall doesn’t count. We also need specifics about both candidates themselves.
Pence must tell his story. What makes him qualified to be vice president and potentially president if Trump gets bored, which is likely, other than a decade in Congress?
It’s true, as he told the American Conservative Union luncheon Tuesday, that unemployment in Indiana has dropped from 8 percent to 5 percent during his time as governor, even though wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living and so Hoosiers are poorer than ever.
It’s also true that the state has a substantial budget surplus, even though many crucial government services continue to go underfunded.
I want to know what else he’s got. Let’s hear it, Pence.
Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.