February 16, 2024 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Kellyanne Conway wants us to believe GOP has a deep bench

In discussing possible VP picks for Trump, she spins the fiction that the party has people ready for the national stage, writes Claire Bond Potter.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following, sent to Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s fabulous newsletter.

A few days after Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, political consultant turned White House advisor Kellyanne Conway appeared on the White House lawn to be interviewed by “Meet the Press.” Among other things, she addressed the allegation that Sean Spicer’s first act as Trump’s press secretary was to lie his head off. The size of the audience viewing the ceremony, Spicer asserted to an incredulous press corps, was larger than Barack Obama’s in 2008. In fact, it was about a third the size of Obama’s, something that was obvious by eyeballing it.

In a “chilling” moment, political reporter Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times, Conway told the interviewer “that Mr. Spicer’s falsehoods were simply `alternative facts.’”

For the next four years, Conway brought an aggressive media relations style to the White House that powered Trump forward, despite his own cognitive, moral and verbal flaws. Her strategy was to produce an uninterruptable river of sludge — partial-truths, outright fabrications, and utterly irrelevant info-garbage — even as skilled reporters like PBS’s Judy Woodruff and CNN’s Erin Burnett attempted to ask her questions about what was going on in the White House.

The Republican Party is dangerously thin on plausible national candidates. Why? Because Trump, Trumpism and Trump partisans have sucked down all the political oxygen, bullied talented conservatives into retirement, and terrified the remainder of his party into a cowed silence.

As of today, Trump prepares to run the table against the last candidate standing between him and the Republican nomination: Nikki Haley, who is metaphorically tied to a railroad track somewhere in South Carolina or in a Super Tuesday state, waiting for Trump train to run her over. You would think that Conway’s track record as a serial liar would prevent reputable, national publications from printing articles under her byline, but no. Today, the Times opinion page hosted a guest essay from her, a speculative piece about, as Conway put it, “one of the most popular questions among the political cognoscenti right now.”

Who will Trump pick as his running mate?

Let me just quibble with Conway’s premise. To an unusual degree, no one — Republican, Democrat or independent — could care less who Trump runs with. He could choose Sponge Bob SquarePants and it would make no material difference to anyone.

I believe Conway knows this, and I will return to its significance later. But it is in a larger context of fatuous, manufactured excitement that we must evaluate her expertise about who is a suitable person to throw into Trump’s wood chipper in 2024. “I am an admittedly well-intentioned but disastrous matchmaker,” Conway muses in a rare attempt at humorous self-disclosure, “but I got one right when in May 2016 I recommended the then-Indiana governor, Mike Pence, as a solid running mate to Mr. Trump.” 

Conway then goes on to list Pence’s qualifications for the job in 2016: 

As governor, Mr. Pence cut taxes and regulations, expanded charter schools and school choice, went to Japan to seek investments in Indiana and created an innovative workaround of Obamacare through the Healthy Indiana Plan. As a congressman representing Indiana, Mr. Pence worked in Washington for 12 years but never became Washington. I thought he could only help us bust through Hillary Clinton’s blue wall in the Upper Midwest and the Rust Belt and allay misgivings among evangelicals and constitutional conservatives trying to make sense of a Manhattan billionaire real estate legend and television star as the standard-bearer for a pro-life, limited-government movement.

Although these are indisputable facts drawn from Pence’s political biography, Conway is still lying, this time by omission. The real reason Pence got the nod was not his qualifications for the job, but because he was a boring, Steady Eddie with the personality and verve of a houseplant. As Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman put it this way in July, 2016, Pence was “a reliable sidekick, unlikely to cause trouble or upstage Mr. Trump in any way” (emphasis mine.)

Conway omits a few more facts about which any potential 2024 running mate is surely thinking. Four-and-a-half years after adding Pence to the ticket, Donald Trump:

  • Tried to have his vice president killed when he refused to help stage a coup on January 6, 2021;
  • Stoked the rage of the MAGA mob, during and after the attempted coup, by designating Pence a “traitor;”
  • Destroyed the admittedly slim possibility that Pence might become president in his own right in 2024, the only reason anyone ever agrees to the thankless veep job in the first place.

However, despite Trump’s terrible personnel record in the vice president department, by law he has to have one. So, who would take on the risks this job entails?

Conway provides a large list of potential No. 2s (ok, an unfortunate way of putting it.) For foreign policy chops, there is former Secretary of State and CIA director Mike Pompeo; Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, and Florida Senator Marco “Liddle Marco” Rubio. For culture warriors who will kick ass to let a woman die giving birth to an unviable fetus, there is (again) Rubio, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (who just got engaged for the first time at 58! nothing to see there!) and the fascist senator from Ohio, JD Vance (in my view, the most MAGA pick.)

Or Trump could pick a woman, for no particular reason that Conway can come up with. As she explains at length, Kamala Harris is a woman and look how that turned out? Here, Conway name checks Alabama Senator Katie Britt, Representative Elise Stefanik (NY-21), Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn or North Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. I mean no disrespect when I say this, but Stefanik, Sanders, Ernst and Blackburn have no chance with Trump because, across the board, they are not pretty and a couple of them are downright dumpy. Britt is pretty, smart and stylish, but not notably MAGA, and Noem would totally do it because she is really ambitious and no one from South Dakota will ever become president in the normal way.

Then, Conway forges on, there are the candidates of color — Rubio (again), Scott (again), Representative Byron Donalds (FL-19), Representative Wesley Hunt (TX-38), neurosurgeon and former Trump Cabinet member Ben Carson, and crazypants tech fascist Vivek Ramaswamy.

Here’s the tip jar. $10? Thanks!

Conway specifically vetoes Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, the only Republicans who have been vetted in the primary process and who bring national networks of committed partisans to the table. Instead, she offers a bouquet of 15 alternative running mates for Donald Trump. Call it an illusion, a distraction or a lie: in the guise of educating her readers about the process by which one chooses a running mate, Conway spins the fiction that the GOP has a deep bench of campaign-ready politicians poised to compete on the national stage.

But that’s not true. The Republican Party is dangerously thin on plausible national candidates. Why? Because Trump, Trumpism and Trump partisans have sucked down all the political oxygen, bullied talented conservatives into retirement, and terrified the remainder of his party into a cowed silence.

Nevertheless, one must have a vice president. So who? And why? Conway continues:

“If I were advising Mr. Trump, I would suggest he choose a person of color as his running mate, depending on vetting of all possibilities and satisfaction of procedural issues like dual residency in Florida. Not for identity politics a la the Democrats but as an equal helping to lead an America First movement that includes more union workers, independents, first-time voters, veterans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans.”

Perhaps you have already noticed that there is absolutely no one on that list who fits Conway’s description but Marco Rubio. Furthermore, Rubio isn’t up for reelection in the Senate until 2026; he could easily take a year off to campaign with Trump, lose the election, and raise his national profile for 2028. As a bonus, many white MAGAs will not know he is a person of color.

Finally, and most importantly, Conway may be dishonest, but she’s no dummy. She knows that choosing Rubio, the other, lesser, Florida guy, would be, for Trump, a satisfying poke in Ron DeSantis’s eye. And she is dangling it in front of him in the only newspaper he really cares about.

Let’s see if he takes the bait.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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