Poor, Poor, Pitiful Pence

The past just won't let him be.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

A Politico piece asserts, regarding the former vice president and aspirant to the presidency, Mike Pence, ‘He’s Got a Huge Problem.’

The nature of his problem? Well, having to balance his desire to be the Republican nominee for president while at the same time sort of avoiding the fact that many in his party think that the 2020 election was stolen.

The core of Pence’s identity has always been loyalty — to his friends, his wife, his faith, his party, his country. Then came the day he had to choose between his boss — the leader of his party — and the Constitution. And he chose the latter. Suddenly, Pence found himself in unfamiliar territory — politically isolated. Reviled by former President Donald Trump’s supporters who saw him as a coward but not completely embraced by Trump’s critics who saw him as permanently tainted for having stood by the former president, he had no natural constituency upon which to build the last act of his political project.Now, as Pence peddles a new memoir and ponders his own run for president, he’s struggling to demonstrate where his loyalties really lie — to the former president whose White House record he proudly touts as a shared legacy, or to a wing of the party that is debating whether to unshackle itself from a conspiracy-laden cult of personality. At a moment when Pence most needs to clearly identify himself to a party that is beginning to audition alternatives to its divisive de facto leader, Pence seems stuck in some muddled attempt to be multiple things simultaneously. And nothing expresses that strained compromise quite like his tortured rationale about whom to support on the campaign trail this fall.

Let me start by saying that history will recognize that Pence did the right thing on January 6, 2021. He did his moral and constitutional duty, which is more than can be said of his former boss. And yes, the bar here is pretty low.

But the problem is this: Pence need to make a choice starting on January 7th as to whether he was truly and deeply loyal (to use the frame from the quote above) to the US Constitution or to Trump and his wing of the GOP. Trying to do both was always going to be a muddle.

To use language that Pence theoretically ought to understand, from Revelations 3:15-16: “I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to vomit you out of My mouth!”

Pence wants to be both hot and cold on the 2020 elections, the behavior of Trump, and election denialism in general. As such, the base is going to vomit him out, quite frankly.

In my opinion Pence’s chances of winning the GOP nomination post-Trump have always been slim. I have thought that during the entire Trump presidency. He sold his soul to be Trump’s running mate and veep because he saw it as his only shot at the White House. His calculation paid off insofar as he got to serve as vice president, but Pence is not Trumpy enough to be Trump 2.0, and never was. However, he is also too tainted by Trump to be some return to the pre-Trump era (which I am guessing was his calculation). It is worth noting that Pence didn’t do all that well running as a “normal” Republican prior to hitching his wagon to Trump’s crazy train.

The funny thing is that Pence may have had a slight window to emerge from his morass of mediocrity by coming out as having seen the light on January 6th and being a pro-democracy Republican and taking Trump down in the process. For the record, I don’t think it would have worked, but it would have differentiated him and created a possible rallying point within the party. It would have least allowed him to go out in a blaze of glory and solidify his place in the history books (and likely created a post-politics media career). Instead, he is an albino frog slowly cooking in a pan of boiling milk.

That he seems to think he can move forward in the lukewarm place between being the guy who failed Trump on January 6th but also the guy who wants to be seen as being loyal to Trump underscores that the man is a terrible political tactician. It is not possible to both be Respecter of the Constitution and Trump’s Loyal Veep and Heir.

I mean, profile in courage much?

I asked one of his longest-serving advisers what to make of the disconnect between Pence’s frustration over Jan. 6 and his decision to campaign for election deniers. The aide pointed out that Pence had not campaigned for Kari Lake in her bid for governor in Arizona, “I think he’s drawing a line in some respects,” the aide said. But no one, not his aides and not Pence, can explain what or where the line is that distinguishes Lake and Masters — both of whom were endorsed by Trump and both of whom have propagated conspiracy theories about Jan. 6.

A week after the midterms, after Masters and Lake had lost and the Republicans’ red wave had collapsed, I spoke with Pence by phone as he sat in the Simon & Schuster offices during a New York City publicity swing for his new book, So Help Me God. I asked him directly about this seeming contradiction, to help me understand the line he was drawing but also to define the kind of candidate Pence himself wants to be and the kind of party he aspires to lead. He answered with another contradiction. “Those that sought to relitigate the past did not fare as well,” he answered. But he also said he was “pleased” to campaign with those candidates.

Pence has never struck me as an especially smart or gifted politician (but I have to acknowledge he has achieved high office on his own, both US Senate and the governorship of Indiana), but it baffles me that he seems to think no one is going to notice this approach and all of its, well, lameness.

“I think he’s got to decide whether he wants to be a Jim-Baker-like statesman that can just always be principled and speak the truth for the rest of his life, with no calculation of political cost,” this person told me. “Or do you want to get the nomination?”

Rather than choose, Pence seems to want both, offering himself as a bridge to nowhere between two increasingly incompatible wings of the party: traditional, center-right Republicans who want to move past Trump and Trump loyalists. “That’s the issue with Mike Pence, and that’s why he makes people so angry because he gets out there and half says the right thing, and then he cowers, and I get it,” Olivia Troye, his former national security adviser, told me. “It’s because of his political ambition.”

The good news, again, is that his ambition was at least checked to some degree, as his best chance for being president was probably helping Trump’s autogolpe. Still, I find the attempt to be betwixt and between here to be just nuts because it is such an obvious dead end.

Still, that is where he seems to be headed:

If Pence does run for president, they say his best shot depends on DeSantis faltering, and Pence, by virtue of his experience and his patience, outlasting him in some kind of tortoise and hare scenario. (When it comes to Trump, they believe he and DeSantis could become preoccupied with one another, allowing Pence to run up the middle.)

To summarize my view: being Trump’s vice president was always going to be the pinnacle of Pence’s political career. Indeed, had it not been for Trump’s desperation for a mainstream running mate, Pence’s political career would likely have remained topped out as Governor of Indiana (a wholly respectable political career, as far as it goes). However, Pence was a key pivot point on January 6th and in its immediate aftermath. He chose correctly on the 6th itself but has chosen poorly after that fact. His chances after the 6th within GOP politics were always going to be poor, but his shot at being a more significant figure, both in the contest for the 2024 nomination and in American politics in general, was linked to breaking with Trump and trying to rally pro-democracy Republicans. Instead, he seemingly thinks he can pretend to attach himself to Trump for the purpose of not alienating while still kind of being pro-democracy.

It is a ridiculous approach doomed to fail.

The rest of the Politico piece is a deep dive into Pence, his career, and his aspirations.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, 2022 Election, 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Tony W says:

    Liz Cheney jumped into the vacuum that Pence abandoned when he abandoned his principles after January 6th – and she is now a credible candidate for national office because of it.

    While I couldn’t vote for a Republican at all, given that Rs have supported Trump’s breathtaking corruption and scandal, I do recognize that Ms. Cheney is remorseful about her party’s role in destroying American norms and values, and seeks to be a voice of change.

    That is a mantle that was Pence’s for the taking – a squandered opportunity.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Pence’s base was the religious right, that he’s lost to trump and they will never forgive him for not stopping the steal. Its hard to see who his constituency is today. If, he took the Liz Cheney route after 1/6, he could have laid claim to the anti-trumpers and he anti-anti-trumpers, trying to own the ‘true conservative’ lane, but it is too late.

  3. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Pence really is a man without a country. He has no constituency.

    This is good:

  4. CSK says:

    I suppose Pence could go back to being a radio show host in Indiana.

  5. Kathy says:

    Do you know the parable of the dog with the two bones?

    Pence is like the dog, except the reflection shows a dog holding a turd and Pence wants it. So he lets go of his bone and winds up with nothing.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What was it they said of Pence? Oh yeah, “The dumbest man in Congress.”

  7. grumpy realist says:

    Once you’ve shown you’ll do anything for power, it’s a little hard to run on a platform protesting your integrity.

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Tony W:

    and [Liz Cheney] is now a credible candidate for national office because of it.

    No, she’s not, but if you want to believe she is that’s fine.

    Now, on to what I really am posting about. I understand Pence’s frustration. Here he is, a guy who could have done everything Trump did and still can–white supremacize with the best of them, stump for border walls he has no intention of building, tax the poor to feed the rich, carry out disasterous trade policy, alienate NATO and other allies, lead the charge for a national ban on abortion from day one, outlaw gender disphoria and restore God-ordained gender (because he really believes in it–“God said it, I believe it, that settles it”), and tout prosperity for the disadvantaged out of vaporware “opportunity corridors” while ordering the Corps of Engineers to bulldoze homeless camps and low-income housing to make way for them–and anything else the Republiqans want without much protest because he’s the guy who stood up for the country on Jan. 6. He should be the ideal new, reformed Republiqan Party candidate but no one recognizes it.

    I feel his pain. Then I realize that his nickname is “Mike Dense” for a reason. No, the world doesn’t work like he wishes it did.

    I was going to note that there’s a reason that guys shouldn’t run for office claiming that they are called by God to do so. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be wild if he really had been called by God to run so that he’d be there to betray his party and President on Jan. 6?

    No, I’m not enough of a dispensationalist to believe this. I think the US plays a bit part in the “plan of the ages” if it’s in the cast at all. I just thought I’d try to say something outrageous and (hopefully) offensive to the secularists here in the week leading up to the second most important celebration in my faith. A celebration that they have crassly commercialized (though not without help, I must admit [chagrined emoji]).

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    He’s not even a good Christian. He sold his soul to the devil and now lacks the courage even to repent.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    He kind of tried to turn to Benito’s other cheek, but that didn’t work.

  11. Assad K says:

    As far as Pence doing the right thing is concerned, isn’t it really Dan Quayle who is the hero of that story?