Having spent the past two and a half years being booed by Republican audiences and mocked on social media, Mike Pence has decided that the American people are finally ready for him. So, with the obligatory period of prayer and contemplation out of the way, the former vice president has officially filed the paperwork to run for president.
There’s no mystery about whether Pence could overcome former president Donald Trump and seize the leadership of his party. The mystery is why he thinks he has any chance at all.
Pence is a photo negative image of contemporary political attractiveness, simultaneously repelling Republicans, Democrats and independents. In his belief that he might become president, he demonstrates the power of ambition to cloud the mind of even the most experienced politician.
Why not Mike?
Pence’s resume has all the traditional markers on the way to the White House: a stint in Congress, then a term as governor, then his time as vice president.
On the issues, Pence has rarely if ever uttered a word of dissent from the conservative catechism, whether on taxes or the safety net or abortion. He’s a born-again Christian whose faith is both fervent and sincere in a party heavy with evangelicals. And doesn’t having been vice president give his presidential bid automatic legitimacy? If Joe Biden can do it, why not Mike?
That is the question every long-shot candidate asks themselves: Why not me? Presidential campaigns are crazy and unpredictable. You never know what might happen.
The problem is that there is almost no significant group of voters who does not already dislike Pence for one reason or another. While Trump added him to his 2016 ticket to shore up support with the Christian right, that group’s loyalty to Trump grew so intense that Pence became an afterthought. The Trump presidency showed that what evangelicals wanted was not someone who believed what they believe, but someone who would smite their enemies.
Then there’s Jan. 6, 2021.
The most conservative Republicans, whom Pence would want to appeal to, are now more fervently pro-Trump than ever. They are also the ones who call Pence a traitor because of the best thing he did as vice president: resisting Trump’s corrupt pressure to delay the electoral count in Congress so that the former president could overturn the outcome.
When Jan. 6 is inevitably brought up, Pence will become trapped. He says (correctly) that the law gave him no authority to halt the count. But that makes it sound as though his loyalty to rules outweighed his loyalty to Trump. Which was true, at least in that moment. But Trump taught the base that rules are for suckers.
A hero who saved democracy?
The other option — to portray himself as a hero who saved democracy in the face of Trump’s corruption — isn’t possible either because it would define Trump as democracy’s enemy. After years of loyalty toward his boss, Pence just doesn’t have it in him to defy Trump, even if he didn’t have to say the last thing Republican voters want to hear.
If anyone is going to beat Trump in the primaries, they’ll have to make the base feel something in the same way Trump does. Something thrilling and intense. That’s what they have come to expect from their leaders; the days when a plodding character such as Bob Dole or Mitt Romney could get the party’s nomination are long gone.
In a general election, Pence would offer voters the worst of all possible worlds: a candidate advocating the GOP’s unpopular policies. Voters are not clamouring for someone to tell them why we need to cut taxes for the rich and outlaw abortion.
The latest poll average reveals Trump has the support of 53 per cent of Republican primary voters, a healthy lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who averages 22 per cent. Pence comes in at 3.8 per cent. In other words, for every Republican who backs Pence, 25 aren’t.
Perhaps Pence hopes that once he reminds them of all he believes and has done, they’ll rush to his side. What he hasn’t said is why.
Other long-shot candidates have something resembling a rationale. Nikki Haley paints herself as the leader of a new generation of conservatives. Tim Scott offers a conservatism that is hard right in substance but kinder and gentler in manner. But Pence — who at some point might have seemed to become the GOP nominee (experienced! conservative! devout!) — is now exactly what no one wants.
Paul Waldman is a noted American columnist