Mike Pence is the most conservative candidate running for president. The former vice president wants abortion banned from the moment of conception. He is the only major candidate calling for cuts to Social Security and health care. And he has the most aggressive foreign policy, especially towards Russia.
Being the most conservative mattered in the Republican presidential primaries.
The president Mr. Pence served under, Donald J. Trump, transformed the GOP electorate, making the path to a Pence presidency visible only to the truest believers. Mr. Pence hasn’t changed much since he was governor of Indiana less than a decade ago, but his party has. It’s the same Mike Pence but a different GOP, and it’s a different GOP because of his former boss.
The Republican Party’s intense focus on character and morality during the Bill Clinton years has been replaced by a different creed — articulated by a former Justice Department official, Jeffrey B. Clark, during a recent Twitter spat over fitness of Mr. Trump in office.
« We are not a congregation voting for a new pastor, » discussed Mr. Clark, the only senior Justice Department official who has tried to help Mr. Trump overturn the 2020 election. « We are voting for a leader of the nation. »
In this way of thinking, it doesn’t matter that Mr. Pence has only been married once and is so determined to honor his vows that he cannot afford to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. Nor does it matter how many affairs Mr. Trump has had or if he has paid secret money to a porn star. Mr. Trump silences all of this, in a sense, with a bang posts on social media: « I was able to kill Roe v. Wade. »
Mr. Pence, who announced his candidacy in a video early Wednesday, hours before a scheduled rally in a Des Moines suburb, he’s given little chance by anyone outside his core team. Republican pollsters and strategists canceled it. Faced with Mr. Pence’s plight — being both dominated and burdened by Trump — most politicians would have concluded, after reviewing polls and focus groups, that there was no « chance theory » for him to win the nomination.
But Mr. Pence seems to have no use for statistical analysis.
“Our country is in a lot of trouble,” Pence says in his nearly three-minute announcement video, accusing “President Joe Biden and the radical left” of undermining America “at home and abroad.”
Citing « runaway inflation, » a looming recession, a southern border « under siege, » unchecked « enemies of freedom » in Russia and « on the march » China, and what he calls an unprecedented assault on « timeless American values, » he promises to deliver what he says the nation badly needs.
« We’re better than this, » says Mr. Pence. “We can transform this country. But different times require different leadership. Today our party and our country need a leader who appeals, as Lincoln said, to the best angels of our nature. »
While some Republican politicians use God as a talking point and have little Bible knowledge, Mr. Pence makes every decision through the filter of Scripture. When he says he’s been praying about a decision, he really means it, and that includes running for president. Throughout his political career, according to people who have worked for him, Mr. Pence has rallied around his staff and his family in frequent prayers. If his theory of chance in this race seems to be based more on faith than data, that’s because he does.
Mr. Pence was Mr. Trump’s yes-man for three years and 11 months. In that past month, Mr. Pence refused to follow a presidential order that was clearly unconstitutional: single-handedly overturning the 2020 election. His loyalty to the Constitution was rewarded with people in a pro-Trump crowd chanting « Hang Mike Pence » as they stormed the Capitol, as Mr. Pence and his family rushed into a barely secure room.
Instead of punishing Mr. Trump for his treatment of Mr. Pence, Republican voters made him their favorite. More than 50 percent of Republicans support the former president in national polls. Mr. Pence gets about 4%. Even in heavily evangelical Iowa, where Mr. Pence is staking his candidacy, he hovers around 5% in the polls.
Mr. Pence has no problem explaining his political positions. He will run for president as a national security hawk, a staunch social conservative, a free trader, and a fiscal conservative. No one who knows him well doubts his sincerity on any of these matters. He may run the least polled campaign in the Republican camp.
Trouble is, the Mike Pence known to most Republicans is a man whose job for four years was to cheer up Mr. Trump through policies and actions that often contradicted his professed principles. If Mr. Pence, in a moment of introspection, wonders why the party he has long aspired to lead no longer seems interested in being led by someone like him, he may be shouldering some of the blame himself.
The Trump-Pence administration has added about $8 trillion to the national debt. So much for fiscal conservatism. The Trump-Pence administration had a trade policy that, for the most part, delighted protectionist Democrats. So much for free trade. And while Mr. Trump has spent his first three years in office listening largely to his more conventional national security advisers, in his last year he has laid the groundwork for a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan that Mr. Pence hasn’t. claimed.
Trump’s current foreign policy articulation of his « America First » foreign policy – which involves abandoning US support for Ukraine and reflecting on giving chunks of Ukrainian land to the Russians – couldn’t be further from the Mr. Pence’s Reagan vision of America championing freedom across the globe.
But it’s not just Mr. Pence’s anti-populist policies that are standing in his way. It’s that Republican voters have markedly different expectations of their leaders than they did during Pence’s political rise as a congressman and then governor of Indiana.
For the past seven years, Trump has been training Republican voters to value a different set of virtues in their candidates. He trained them to value Republicans who fight hard and dirty, using any tactics necessary to defeat their opponents. He also trained them to look away from behaviors that were once considered disqualifying.
For four years Mr. Pence also looked away. He has remained with Mr. Trump through numerous controversies including the leak of the « Access Hollywood » tape, in which Mr. Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. He vouched for Mr. Trump’s character with the skeptical evangelicals with whom Mr. Trump eventually forged his relationship.
When Mr. Trump, as president, praised North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his vice president, bound by loyalty, remained silent. Yet recently on the campaign trail, after Trump congratulated Kim on his country’s readmission to the executive council of the World Health Organization, Pence chastised his former boss for « praising North Korea’s dictator. »
Mr. Pence may finally feel free to tell voters what he really thinks of Mr. Trump. The problem with him is that most Republicans don’t want to hear it.