The vice presidency, as even the most remedial student of American politics will tell you, is not the most exciting gig in the world. Our first veep, John Adams, famously hated it so much that he called it ‘the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived’. It’s a sleepy position, one that doesn’t typically involve, say, surviving a mob that believes you’re conspiring to steal the election away from your own ticket. Yet this is the fate that’s befallen Michael Richard Pence.
Prior to January 6, Pence had been wraithlike even by vice-presidential standards, overshadowed by one of the most inescapable presidents in American history. The attack on the Capitol fixed the attention of the world upon him. Would he carry out his constitutional duties? Would he certify Joe Biden as the winner of the election, despite Trump exerting enormous pressure on him to do otherwise?
Pence did — and it’s sometimes forgotten that he could have chosen differently. The vice president’s powers over election certifications are narrow, but Pence still might have refused to preside. He might even have echoed Trump and said the election had been stolen, which likely would have plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. He chose not to — and thereby risked whatever political ambitions he might have had. What Republican would vote for him after he’d betrayed Trump? What devoted Iowa conservative would back him now that he’d handed the keys to Joe Biden?
So you had to hand it to Pence when recently an appearance in South Carolina appeared on his schedule. The Palmetto State is early during the GOP presidential primaries and a must-win for a social conservative like him. That came amid a flurry of other planned Pence activity, including a fundraiser hosted by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and a pilgrimage to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in California. Pence has also been involving himself in conservatism’s archipelago of non-profits, including the Heritage Foundation and Young Americans for Freedom.
Does that mean he could win in 2024? You’d have to be deranged to speculate two and a half years out, but I’m here, you’re here, so let’s have at it. President Pence would certainly be a long shot, to say the least. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, half of Republicans still believe that Trump was the rightful winner of the last election. The next campaign, especially if Trump runs, but even if he doesn’t, could easily turn into a carnival for those grievances, which will make Pence’s certification of Biden’s presidency an albatross around his neck.
Could he nonetheless find his groundswell: ‘Intense for Pence’, if you will? The first obstacle would be Trump himself, who now regards Pence with little affection. Asked to name the future leaders of the GOP, Trump has mentioned Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz — not his former running mate. Which raises a question: what would a Pence Republican constituency look like? Hardcore Trumpists aren’t about to forgive or forget. Rank-and-file conservatives might wonder where Pence has been during the political and cultural fights of late. The party’s one or two remaining NeverTrumpers, while they might appreciate what he did after January 6, are unlikely to forgive him for having served as Trump’s veep in the first place.
The Trump era was packed with ironies. One of them was that Pence ever found himself in this position. A former governor of Indiana, he was once known for having called down a firestorm upon himself when he signed into law a broad protection for religious freedoms that the left deemed bigoted. But he was also renowned in Indianapolis for his affability. He struck up friendships with a number of Indiana Democrats, including Pete Buttigieg, who used to be mayor of South Bend. Before that, he’d hosted a conservative talk radio show that was known for its ‘Hoosier hospitality’ and earned him the moniker ‘Rush Limbaugh on decaf’.
Pence was always a staunch conservative — he helped lead congressional opposition in 2008 to the TARP bailout bill, for example — but he was also a nice Midwesterner, as stark a contrast to Trump’s Manhattan snarling as you were likely to find. He was picked as veep to soften the ticket, but also because so many other Republicans had either run against Trump in the primary or sharply denounced him. Throughout the administration, he remained mysteriously absent from much of the cabinet drama that so plagued the Trump White House. When Trump appointed him to head the White House’s coronavirus task force in 2020, his decaf persona reemerged, as some officials lauded him for seeking consensus while others criticized him for moving too slowly.
Pence had successfully maintained his own style and personality, while also seeming to stay out of Trump’s line of fire. He wasn’t the most obvious choice for 2024, but he still might have been a strong contender…until 1/6 forced him into a political corkscrew.
Can he put that dreadful day behind him? It isn’t unthinkable. Trump, now banned from Twitter, can no longer silence anyone with a single push of the Enter key. And four years is an eternity in politics, enough time even for events of that caliber to fade sufficiently from the Republican memory.
The problem, at least right now, is that Pence seems to be going about this the wrong way. Appearances with congressional Republicans can help, the Heritage Foundation does admirable work, but the way to win a GOP primary is no longer by going through elite institutions. The smoke-filled backrooms have been fumigated; the gatekeepers are all retired. These days it’s about waging the culture war, owning the libs on Twitter, working on splashy if important legislation that bans critical race theory or vaccine passports.
Somehow it’s tough to imagine a YouTube show called The Pence Report, wherein the eponymous host rants about the encroachment of socialism onto Blue’s Clues. It’s been a wild ride for the former veep, but what ultimately does him in might be that which was once most attractive about him: he’s just too nice for the political moment.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.