Poor Mike Pence. You remember Mike Pence—he’s the guy who defeated a roomful of lickspittles to claim the obsequiousness grand prize at a 2017 cabinet meeting, praising the dear leader once every 12.5 seconds. Well, it seems that Mike Pence thinks he has a shot at the presidency. He’s building a campaign team, has made numerous trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and is appearing at campaign events for candidates challenging Trump-supported nutters.
You can imagine how the conversation went with his political advisers: People are tired of Trump. They’re exhausted by all the drama. They want to move on. And you’re the perfect person to fill the void. You served him faithfully, but when it came to violating the Constitution, you stood your ground. Voters will recognize your courage. And you are the true conservative!
Marc Short, Pence’s vice-presidential chief of staff, offered that, “If he were to run, he may not be the biggest celebrity. But if we’re going to go back to a principled conservative who represents the things we stand for, then there’s no one better than Mike.”
“If we’re going to go back.” Not likely. But Pence seems to think there’s a yearning for that. He’s blown the dust off yellowing copies of his Before Time speeches and sprinkled his text with the sort of Christian-y talk that got him a House seat and the Indiana governor’s chair: “Pray for our opponents,” he told a (small) audience at a South Carolina church, “that their hearts would soften and their minds would open to the unimaginable beauty that is life.”
Isn’t that nice? But there are a few flies in the ointment.
First problem. Now? Now is the moment that Pence rolls out the prayer? As Pence is well-situated to know, big chunks of the GOP base have become hungry for a very different tone. Christian charity is out. Vulgar insults, shameless lies, and secessionist hatred are in. It sure is ugly, but Pence is in no position to complain. It’s a revolution that Mike Pence did so much to encourage, and it’s bizarre that he seems to think he can carry on as if nothing has changed.
Pence prostituted his reputation for Christian piety to the most vile figure in the history of American presidential politics, a man who modeled the opposite of every virtue taught in Sunday school. Pence lent his credibility as a religious man to a villain, and gave permission to millions of self-styled Christians to vote for him. Pence’s pious conscience was remarkably quiescent when Trump encouraged his followers to rough up hecklers; when he bore false witness against Muslim Americans (falsely claiming that he saw them celebrating after 9/11); when he attempted to extort the president of Ukraine to lie about Joe Biden; when he separated asylum-seeking parents from their children; when he refused to condemn the tiki-torch Nazi wannabes in Charlottesville; when he elevated a series of kooks and conspiracists to high office; and when he insisted that the election had been stolen.
Pence was fine with all of it.
Second problem: Worse than simply remaining silent, he played the toady with seemingly endless reserves of self-mortification, uttering cringeworthy encomia to Trump’s “broad-shouldered leadership” (a phrase he repeated at least 17 times), and audacious lies about matters big and small.
There was no bottom to Pence’s fawning. To please Trump, he called Joe Arpaio, a convicted criminal (pardoned by Trump) and thuggish abuser of power, a “tireless champion of the rule of law” and said he was “honored” by Arpaio’s presence at his speech. He claimed, preposterously, that Trump had performed magnificently in the face of the COVID pandemic: “President Trump marshaled the full resources of our federal government from the outset. He directed us to forge a seamless partnership with governors across America in both political parties.”
When Pence traveled to Ireland on an official visit, he didn’t stay in Dublin, but traipsed 140 miles west to stay at the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, necessitating a 40 minute flight and hour-long drive each way. Must have been inconvenient, but then, if Trump had asked Pence to crawl both ways, he would doubtless have obliged.
Pence helped transform the GOP from a conservative party into a cult, and as he is discovering to his sorrow, cults don’t behave the way normal political parties do. That’s why Pence’s gamble that he will get credit from the base for his loyal service to the leader is foolhardy. He is at the mercy of the leader. If the leader disowns him, no history of loyalty to Trump himself, far less service to conservative goals, will save him. Ask Jeff Sessions. Ask Mo Brooks. Pence is attempting to finesse this by referring frequently to the Trump/Pence administration and declining to criticize Trump—even for January 6. When speaking of it (which he tries to avoid), he calls it a “dark day,” adding that he supposes he and Trump will “never see eye to eye” about it. Got that? Trump sicced an armed and violent mob on Pence by tweeting that Pence had failed him, and Pence responds that, gosh darn it, sometimes friends disagree.
Third problem: It’s impossible to say how large a contingent of Republican primary voters are in the “Pence is a Traitor” camp, but consider that a recent New York Times/Sienna poll found that only 6 percent of Republicans would vote for Pence in a 2024 primary. At their dueling campaign appearances in Arizona, Trump assembled a rally attended by thousands while Pence spoke to a crowd estimated at 300.
There may indeed be an audience in the GOP for someone other than Trump. A softening in his support is now just barely discernible in polling and lack of donor enthusiasm. But the Trump base will not forgive Pence. Better to turn to someone like DeSantis who hasn’t been guilty of abiding by the Constitution.
And if the GOP were, by some miracle, to seek an honest, non-authoritarian, traditionally conservative candidate, there are other choices including Liz Cheney, Larry Hogan, and Adam Kinzinger, who have reminded Republicans of what conservatism can look like.
Pence did a great thing for the country on January 6. His tragedy is that he has managed to earn the contempt of the MAGA world and the anti-MAGA world. Again, he deserves full credit for not obeying Trump’s command to refuse to count the Electoral College votes on January 6, 2021. That took courage and a certain amount of integrity and saved the country from a constitutional crisis and possibly worse. Considering the stakes, he should have followed it up with total honesty about how we reached that frightening moment in American democracy. If he had attempted to invoke the 25th Amendment, or encouraged senators to convict Trump at the second impeachment, or testified in public to the House January 6th Committee, it might have gone some way to compensate for the infamy of the past four years.
Pence chose another path—trying to have it both ways. It will end, perhaps appropriately, with a whimper.