Mike Pence Will Never Be President
Nancy Ohanian and I are working on a book. I figure out what I want to write about by dreaming about it. Last night I dreamed about Mike Pence. Is he even relevant enough for a page any longer, other than, perhaps, a reference to having almost been hanged by the mob Trump incited to sack the Capitol (and build a gallows for Pence)? But in terms of American politics going forward... people will probably soon begin forgetting there ever was a Mike Pence-- like Alben Barkley, Hubert Humphrey, Spiro Agnew, Nelson Rockefeller, Walter Mondale, Dan Quayle...
Vice presidents who don't become president-- the way Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, LBJ, George H.W. Bush and Joe Biden did-- fade from memory pretty fast. I suspect the sleazy and uncharismatic Pence will be gone from the collective consciousness faster than most. Writing for Politico yesterday, David Siders reported that Pence's presidential campaign has basically flatlined. Trump didn't like him and picked him so he could bring Trump the evangelical vote. No evangelicals have largely abandoned Pence while building golden statues of Trump who has replaced Jesus in their sick religion. Pence polled 1% at the Dallas CPAC a week and a half ago.
At the moment, Pence occupies a political no-man’s land. Vocal elements of Trump’s base remain furious at him for his refusal to reject the results of the November election, despite him having no authority to do so. Moderates, meanwhile, see too little distance between Pence and the president he catered to for four years. They’re wary the association may turn off the independents and suburban women Trump hemorrhaged in 2018 and again in 2020.
At 62-- and with several contenders in their 40s-- Pence is too old to represent a new generation of Republican leadership. His deep well of support among Christian conservatives, which served as a critical validator for Trump, will matter less in a field where the religious right has other candidates to pick from.
“He’s got to justify to the Trumpistas why he isn’t Judas Iscariot, and then he’s got to demonstrate to a bunch of other Republicans why he hung out with someone they perceive to be a nutjob,” said Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses and on several presidential campaigns.
Describing Pence as “caught in between” those competing factions, Walsh said, “I just think it is an awfully tough, tough hill for him to climb.”
After hecklers greeted Pence at the Faith and Freedom Coalition event in Florida last month, organizers of a speaker series in one early nominating state decided to hold off on inviting him. They were sympathetic to Pence, but fearful he’d be embarrassed by a similar reception there, according to a source involved in the decision.
Three years before an election-- and especially for someone with Pence’s name recognition and expansive donor and political network-- no campaign is irredeemable. But not since another former vice president from Indiana, Dan Quayle, ran for president in 2000, has such a prominent Republican politician’s pre-presidential campaign seemed more forlorn.
...Pence needs more than time or the traditional ebb and flow of a presidential campaign to revive his prospects. His path to the nomination, more than most contenders, hinges on the highly uncertain prospect that the primary electorate’s view of the November election-- and Pence’s role in it-- will change. A majority of Republicans still believe Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, according to numerous polls. And Trump supporters are not letting go, with a controversial audit continuing in Arizona and with Trump devotees pushing for similar reviews in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other states, despite no evidence that the election results were skewed.
It isn’t only Trump supporters broadly who pose a problem for Pence. White evangelicals, in particular, feel burned by the last election, more likely than members of any other religious group to believe the November contest was stolen. Those voters once constituted Pence’s base.
Pence is trying to hold on to that constituency-- if not to change the minds of his Republican critics, to shift their focus. Earlier this year, he said he and Trump may never “see eye to eye” on the Jan. 6 insurrection. But he does not dwell on it. Instead, he says he “couldn’t be more proud” to have served with Trump, heralds the policies of the Trump-Pence administration and contrasts them with those of the current, Democratic White House. Implicitly, he’s urging Republicans to view Trump-- and him-- less for their roles in the aftermath of the election than for the four years preceding it.
In some corners of the MAGA movement, that will likely be impossible. Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign strategist whose War Room podcast has served to amplify Trump’s claims that the election was stolen, said that Pence is “dead now” but that as Republicans draw more attention to ballot reviews in Arizona and other states he is “officially going to be buried.”
“MAGA is maniacally focused on 3 November, and they understand Pence betrayed them,” said Bannon, who was pardoned by Trump as he left the White House. “He is being shunned and erased from the MAGA movement, and it hasn’t even started.”
He said, “Mike Pence’s political career is over … It’s done.”
A source close to Pence said he is “entirely focused on 2022,” not presidential politics. Still, he is taking steps to both stay in public view and nurture relationships with Republican politicians and donors who could be helpful to him in 2024. In April, Pence announced the formation of Advancing American Freedom, a policy group. He has a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and he is raising money for House candidates ahead of the midterm elections next year. Later this year, he plans to tour college campuses for the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative youth organization.
Pence’s supporters point out that Joe Biden was widely dismissed as a presidential contender before winning the Democratic nomination and the presidency last year. Trump was a political non-entity at this point in the 2016 election cycle. One former adviser predicted that “once more and more people start talking about the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration, and when you get to the actual campaigning that will take place two to three years from now and compare it to the current administration, there’s a very good case to make.”
The overarching problem for Pence, however, is that even if a large number of Republican voters do get over the last election, and respond to the policy contrast with Biden, it’s not clear that Pence will be the beneficiary. Election truthers, like those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and chanted “hang Mike Pence,” will remain a segment of the electorate unavailable to Pence.
Trump supporters who liked Trump’s policies but not his behavior-- the “Trump without the tweets” constituency-- will have an entire stable of contenders who aren’t burdened by Pence’s baggage from crossing Trump. And never-Trump Republicans will likely have other, more Trump-skeptical candidates to choose from, potentially including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Pence, who is uniquely tethered to Trump by the vice presidency and distanced from him by Jan. 6, has liabilities with all of those factions.