Underrated: Mike Pence

The Vice President’s mixture of principle and opportunism have made him formidable

Underrated
Mike Pence: A heartbeat away from the Presidency (photo: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

If the stories are accurate, Donald Trump had last-minute doubts about Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana and the person he’d just chosen as his running mate. If so, those doubts said more about Trump than Pence. The Donald would probably have preferred someone from his comfort zone: maybe Newt Gingrich, an eccentric whose glory days were decades ago, or New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a star eclipsed by scandal. He knew them reasonably well and, more importantly, understood that their last best hope of political advancement rested with him. They would know their place.

But Pence looked dangerously like his own man, an outsider foisted on Trump to reassure traditional Republicans and to bring decorum and a credible political track record to a ticket desperately short of both. To be sure, Pence faced a tough re-election fight for the governorship (which in the end he would have probably won), but he had also served six terms in Congress and had been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate for years. He had no need to jump aboard a Trump train only uncertainly connected to the rails. Worse, Pence had endorsed Ted Cruz and reportedly loathed The Donald. The Indiana governor denied that he felt that way, but it was hard to imagine a meeting of minds between a self-described “Christian . . . conservative and . . . Republican, in that order” and a chancer of no fixed party married to Ivana, Marla and Melania, in that order.

The Pence pick was enthusiastically received by GOP loyalists, and, however appalled they were by his hardline social — and not just social — conservativism, even the party’s opponents seemed somewhat soothed by the thought that, in the not-going-to-happen event of a Trump win, at least one pro would be in the new president’s vicinity. If there was a consensus, it was that Pence was a touch dull. There were mutterings too that he was not the brightest. Some of the latter can be put down to the lazy assumptions often made about religious types from flyover country, but, yes, Pence was a C student at high school and, yes, getting into law school had been something of a struggle. The vice president was not, one former associate told me, someone to get too deeply into policy details, but this former talk radio host was “good at messaging”.

That has not always been as true as it might have been. After his second (unsuccessful) attempt to make it into Congress, Pence apologised for running a campaign so negative that it backfired (that was then). A quarter of a century later, there was that looming re-election fight for the governorship. It looked trickier than it should have been, thanks partly to a battle over legislation designed to protect “religious freedom” (but seen by its critics as allowing discrimination against gays). Pence had annoyed both sides, initially by signing the law, then by agreeing to water it down.

That was unusual: Pence’s determination to stick to his principles, even if it meant defying a Republican president, had served him well in Washington after he won election to Congress in 2000. Grasping all the “legs” — fiscal, social and hawkish — of what Ronald Reagan famously described as conservatism’s “three-legged stool”, it wasn’t too long before he was on his way up.  The hardening attitudes on the Right that accompanied the financial crisis (Pence voted against the TARP bailout) and Obama’s election did him no harm either. He became a Tea Party favourite, largely without alienating more mainstream colleagues — no mean achievement. Chatter about a bid for the White House grew louder, but Pence opted to take aim first at the governor’s mansion, a shrewd choice for an ambitious legislator looking for the executive experience that could, if the opportunity arose, bolster a run for the presidency.

Four years later, an unexpected and rather different opportunity presented itself. Pence — more flexible than his reputation suggested — took it. There are dignified rationalisations, of course (patriotic duty, saw something good in Trump) for that decision, but it looks a lot like a brilliant contrarian bet. It would have been made easier to take by the prospect of that re-election fight at home and the thought that, if Trump lost, there was always 2020 and, in the interim, lucrative gigs on the conservative media and lecture circuit — a stint as a Palin, but with gravitas and a future.

Now Pence is a heartbeat, a scandal, or even a tweet away from the presidency. Quite how power is distributed in the Trump administration is opaque, but Pence is clearly much more than a state funerals’ veep, cold-shouldered onto the sidelines. He is out and about too, an ambassador for the administration: to Congress say, or attending the Munich Security Conference in February. He is professional, respectable, calming — no Spiro Agnew he, and, for that matter, no Trump either — and yet, a wise fellow, demonstratively loyal to his boss.

And if in the depths of the night, thoughts that are not quite so loyal come into this still sometimes underrated man’s head, I’m sure they are banished without more ado.