Why Mike Pence's Debate Performance Made Republicans Wistful

On Tuesday night, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine went toe-to-toe at Longwood University in Virginia. While no formal polling has been released at the time of writing, it seems clear that Pence did a lot better in the Thrilla in Vanilla than his running mate did last week at Hofstra University. In fact, based on the night's tweets, Pence's debate performance left many Republicans wistfully pondering what could have been.

Pence managed to tackle some core — and controversial — Republican beliefs on the national stage with a calm articulation that, to be blunt, his running mate almost always seems to lack. For example, more than a few conservatives praised Pence's espousing of pro-life views — especially when compared to Donald Trump's proposed punishment for women who sought illegal abortions (a view Trump has walked back from but that still made a debate appearance Tuesday night). J.P. Freire, Sen. Orrin Hatch's communications director, tweeted, "People. Take notes on how Pence talks about Pro-Life issues. Wow."

Fox News contributor Guy Benson, who notes in his Twitter bio that "I oppose Trump and Clinton because I am a conservative," went so far as to tweet, "If I knew nothing about Trump, Pence would have convinced me."

It wasn't merely that many conservative pundits watched Pence and found solace in the prospect of the Indiana governor making a 2020 run for the White House. Pence's ability to laugh off Trump's most damaging, questionable, and offensive views and behavior (admittedly, to varying degrees of success) seemed to offer hope for how the GOP could and would eventually move past the Trump campaign — namely by ignoring him. "Pence is giving the country a very good preview of how the Republican Party is going to move beyond Trump. Just pretend he never happened," Pro-Publica's Alec MacGillis tweeted.

Pence's debate performance evoked the kind of GOP ideology that the anti-Trumpers miss, the views and policies that, up until 18 months ago, would have been the standard. In short, Pence evoked the (relative) good 'ol days for the Grand Old Party. As BuzzFeed's Katherine Miller tweeted, "Mike Pence turning in a great performance for his imaginary running mate Mitt Romney." New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristoff tweeted, "Pence did a pretty good job outlining a traditional GOP foreign policy. If only Trump would listen to him." There are few topics on which Kristoff and Republicans tend to align — but this just might be one of them.