Mike Pence began his political career as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” a calmer and more collegial kind of conservative radio host based in Indianapolis. He likely ended it as Donald Trump’s patsy, running for his life from star-spangled sans culottes who wanted to hang him for refusing to certify his own ticket as the winner of an election.
And…I mean…geez. We’ve all ridden some emotional rollercoasters over these last six years, but Pence’s is in a category all its own. I think a letdown that severe would have sent me careening up to some remote corner of New Hampshire to live out my days in a lean-to. And that’s not even counting all the White House drama Pence no doubt had to endure while in office. Let’s just hope he eventually gets around to writing a book (working title: Protecting Our Twenty-Fifth Amendment Rights).
Yet even if he pens a tell-all, we may never really understand. Pence is one of those figures whom everyone who’s ever worked in broadcast media knows well. He can put on a show, give a monologue, light up the phone lines — yet you never feel like you really know him. Loquacious though he is, his inner life remains opaque. It seems strange to call a politician a man of discretion, but that’s what Pence is. He’s the molecular opposite of former Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci, that rent-a-mouth who talks as though he’s trying to systematically eliminate all the commas from his transcripts. Pence in contrast is cautious, Midwestern, unafraid of being overshadowed.
Yet still ambitious. So it was that on Monday, the former veep headed to Illinois, and if he isn’t running for president in 2024, he sure had a funny way of showing it. At the University Club of Chicago, he denounced Joe Biden for “seemingly every day driving our economy into the abyss of a socialist welfare state.” Then, in Peoria, he encouraged Republicans to “cast a positive vision for the future for the American people” and insisted the GOP “must be the party of the future.”
What all that means is: let’s say there’s a hypothetical Republican out there who’s focused obsessively on a past election. What Pence would like is for other Republicans to reject that Republican for president in favor of a more forward-looking Republican who, for example, doesn’t dwell on the fact that a gallows was erected on Capitol Hill with his name on it. The rift between Trump and his ex-veep is quiet but very real. Pence even campaigned in Georgia last month for Governor Brian Kemp against a primary challenger backed by Trump.
Yet if Pence is increasingly unafraid to buck his old boss, he also can’t stray too far from MAGA proper. Thus in Peoria did he repeatedly praise the “Trump-Pence administration” — he wants the glow of the Trump brand even as he backs slowly away from it. That’s a narrow political tightrope and it’s not entirely clear he can walk it. The 2024 Republican field, after all, already has its headliners: Trump and Ron DeSantis, whose animus for each other has lately spilled into public. With those two clashing, it would be difficult for anyone to find an opening, let alone a soft-spoken Hoosier.
It is no longer true (if it ever was) that “Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line.” These days, Republicans are constantly falling in love — with Trump four years ago and with DeSantis today. Trump they see as having a track record (even if he comes off as self-aggrandizing and passé) while DeSantis is a culture warrior who fights for the issues they care about. That isn’t to say dark horses can’t emerge during primary season (if they couldn’t, Jeb! might very well be president right now). But what is different this time around is to have two adored — not anointed — GOP titans who make it unlikely that anyone else can edge in.
And so it’s worth asking: why is Pence subjecting himself to this? Again, we crash headlong into that opaque wall. Maybe he’s long had his eye on the presidency and doesn’t want to give it up. Maybe he’s worried about the country backsliding into woke anarchy. Or maybe he really is concerned about what Trump did to the GOP and thinks we need a leveler head in charge.
Whatever the case, there’s more to Pence than just his time as veep. In a normal political year, we might break down his advantages (able to winsomely explain social conservatism) and disadvantages (looks like the head of an evil task force sent to hunt down Eleven). Instead…ladies and gentlemen, DONALD TRUMP VERSUS RON DESANTIS!! Pence is a fine politician, a good man, an interesting thinker. It just might not matter much in 2024.