by A.B. Stoddard
Mention that Mike Pence is trying to run for president in 2024 and people laugh — out loud. But he is. Even more hilarious is that the former vice president believes he can campaign and win as his own man.
After nearly five years of unshakable fealty to former President Trump, and five months after Trump sent a violent mob after him for failing to overturn the election, Pence has declared independence from Trump and his unconstitutional demands in some shockingly straight talk.
Pence had tip-toed out in early June, making his first comments about Jan. 6, and placing some distance between himself and Trump, but ever so slightly and carefully.
“As I said that day, Jan. 6 was a dark day in the history of the United States Capitol. But thanks to the swift action of the Capitol Police and federal law enforcement, violence was quelled. The Capitol was secured,” Pence said.
“And that same day, we reconvened the Congress and did our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” he continued. “You know, President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office. And I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye to eye on that day.”
It was Pence’s idea of being bold, but he was still mocked for trying to have it both ways, using vague language and mentioning how much he speaks with Trump. So it was stunning just weeks later that Pence then chose to be far more explicit in his rejection of the plot for him to block electoral vote counts, calling it “un-American.”
In a June 24 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as part of its “Time for Choosing” series, Pence paired Trump with Reagan as presidents who had “disrupted the status quo,” and he sprinkled more compliments throughout his remarks. But his goal was to separate himself from the taint of the insurrection. Pence said he was “proud” to have kept his constitutional oath in certifying the Electoral College results on Jan. 6.
“The truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president. The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone,” Pence said. That one person, while Pence made it sound as if it was himself, was clearly Donald Trump.
Pence even acknowledged losing the election, something Trump refuses to do.
“I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election,” he stated. “I can even relate. Remember, I lost reelection too. But there’s more at stake than our party or our political fortunes.”
Wrenching words from someone who, in the protection of his political fortunes, stood by a president who likely obstructed justice numerous times, was impeached twice for abuse of power and incitement of a deadly insurrection, and continues to lie about the 2020 election to millions of believers.
“In the years ahead, the American people must know that our Republican Party will always keep our oath to the Constitution; even when it would be politically expedient to do otherwise. That we are the party that, as the Bible says, will keep our oath, even when it hurts,” he said.
Pence, of course, is well aware that many GOP voters want their leaders to, first and foremost, be loyal to Trump — whose governing philosophy is to do whatever he wants for political expediency even when it threatens to destroy the constitutional order.
“If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country,” Pence added.
None of this is lost on Trump, who categorically rejects any and all rejections of his goals, his means of meeting them, and his version of reality. And he will drop the anvil at his own time of choosing. While he has trashed former Attorney General Bill Barr and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he has adopted a strategic silence on Pence. Almost as if it’s better to let Pence try and start over. But attack him he will.
Pence is well aware Trump already said he would consider Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a running mate if he seeks the Oval Office again, and when asked about the rest of the field he lists DeSantis and other Republicans but never Pence.
Trump is reportedly jealous of his veep for securing a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster worth several million dollars, according to Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, who tweeted at the time: “Pence’s book deal is said to have been grating on him.” Out of nowhere Trump put out a statement claiming he was penning the “book of all books”: “I turned down two book deals, from the most unlikely of publishers, in that I do not want to do such a deal right now. I’m writing like crazy anyway, however, and when the time comes, you’ll see the book of all books. Actually, I’ve been working on a much more important project right now!”
Pence thinks his loyalty up until Jan. 6, then loyalty to the Constitution on that day, gives him a path to the presidency. He is wrong. While still appealing to the party faithful, Pence is trying to convince voters the GOP needs a “consistent, conservative philosophy,” but his separation from Trump leaves Pence a man of no constituency in today’s Republican Party. Pence thinks his service to the former president and praise of his accomplishments will keep enough MAGA nationalists and evangelicals in his camp, but also believes his clarity about insurrection and protection of the Constitution will endear him to Republicans who cannot abide Trump or the populist Mini-Me’s who will run as imitations of the 45th president. The former congressman, governor and vice president is naive to underestimate the number of anti-Trump Republicans who will not forgive his acquiescence to Trump. There is no coalition for Pence in the primary electorate right now.
Of course, Pence is not alone on the high wire. Most 2024 contenders are forming political action committees to help out candidates in 2022 and build chits throughout the party, while waiting under the big foot of Trump to see if he runs again, or — as many hope — is indicted. But Pence, who let Trump and his millions of Stop the Steal devotees down, faces a much steeper climb in a Republican primary than people like Sen. Ted Cruz and Mike Pompeo do. A deeply devout man, Pence was heckled last month by Christian activists, no less, at the Faith & Freedom Coalition, where he was not just booed but called a “traitor.”
Pence wanted to be a statesman, as he exhibited early on in the administration. But he soon learned that attracting praise was dangerous so he chose a strategy of taking any assignment and complimenting his emotionally needy boss 24/7. Most of us can now recite his loop where he could never stop telling Trump (and the rest of us) how “deeply humbled” he was to be anywhere near the majestic and ever macho splendor of the president’s “broad-shouldered leadership.”
George Will captured Pence’s chosen posture beautifully in a 2018 column headlined “Trump Is No Longer the Worst Person in Government,” where he referred to the president’s number two as “oleaginous.”
Pence is a cautious, measured politician who has been calibrating his position in the 2024 field since 2016. He clearly felt he must set himself apart from Trump on the insurrection while not going as far as Liz Cheney, who lost her leadership position by blaming Trump for inciting it. Meanwhile Pence is undoubtedly a hunted man. Just like those House Republicans who have told Cheney and Rep. Peter Meijer they are afraid to criticize Trump because they fear for their physical security (and their lives), Pence must be the target of ongoing death threats because several times since that lethal day, Trump has repeated that Pence lacked the “courage” to do what he wanted him to do.
While most Republicans whitewash the Jan. 6 attack, Pence — who could easily have been wounded or killed that day — has chosen not to. But he hasn’t disavowed the Big Lie, as former attorney general Bill Barr has. Pence thinks this is a balancing act, but it’s a cop-out. Indeed, Pence indulged the Big Lie. At an appearance in Georgia, campaigning for GOP incumbents in the Senate runoff elections two days before the insurrection, Pence was feeding red meat to the crowd.
“We’ve all got our doubts about the last election,” Pence said. “And I want to assure you, I share the concerns of millions of Americans about voting irregularities.” He didn’t promise anything but teased out the possibility of rejecting the votes on Jan. 6, as he knew the crowd wanted him to. “I promise you, come this Wednesday, we’ll have our day in Congress,” the vice president said. “We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence.”
It was the same day Trump had boasted that he had not conceded and he wouldn’t let Joe Biden “take” the White House. The tape of Trump asking Georgia election officials to “find” enough votes to decertify the state’s election results was already public. Pence had told Trump privately that he didn’t have the authority to reject the electoral votes states had certified come Jan. 6, but he knew full well Trump didn’t give a hoot about Pence’s view of his authority or oath to the Constitution.
“They’re not taking this White House; we’re going to fight like hell,” Trump said at a rally in Dalton, Ga., where he repeated his false claims that he “won in a landslide” in the November election, which he called “rigged.”
Trump fatefully added: “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us. Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
Trump doesn’t like Pence much. And he will work hard to make sure his “deeply humbled” vice president is humiliated if he tries to compete in a GOP primary.
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A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.