Pence & Sensibility

What exactly is Pence’s lane, and is there really any constituency clamoring for his candidacy?
What exactly is Pence’s lane, and is there really any constituency clamoring for his candidacy? Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images
Tara Palmeri
March 16, 2023

Last Saturday, Mike Pence stepped onto the stage at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, in Washington, looking for an image makeover. The stiff, soft-spoken former vice president wanted to convince a ballroom of self-serious journalists, pompadoured TV hosts, and tux-clad politicos that he wasn’t merely a Donald Trump supplicant, but rather a bonafide conservative fighter, who was ready to attack his old boss. Sure, Pence has refused to testify about the events of Jan. 6, when a mob called for his lynching at the Capitol, and he has not cooperated with Special Counsel Jack Smith’s probe into Trump’s attempts to stay in power. But on Saturday night, his team was determined to take the inside chatter head on. Pence delivered a calculated attack on his former boss, saying “history will hold Donald Trump accountable for January 6,” and that he endangered his family.  

It was a canny yet careful move deployed by his careful and calculating team, which has up until this point been steering Pence toward academic conclaves, policy institutes, religious centers and universities to highlight his wedge issues with Trump and Ron DeSantis. He chose the Clements School of Security, at the University of Texas, to draw a contrast with DeSantis on Ukraine; an appearance at the Federalist society to make a constitutional argument against Trump’s actions around Jan. 6; and, before that, a speech at the University of Chicago to defend his decision to brush off the congressional committee. (The Washington Post has a full rundown of these very deliberate moments, nearly all delivered to the inside crowd—the donors, the think tankers, and intellectuals.) Each of these forums have drawn student protests, giving him street cred with conservatives while shielding him from the MAGA pitchforks that might show up at, say, a homebuilders event in Iowa.

The slam dunk at the Gridiron also achieved the headline that Pence’s team likely coveted from Playbook, my old haunt, which noted: “Pence goes where no 2024 contender has gone before.” And if he’s taking the modern Jon Huntsman strategy, targeting the media constituency as a draftable middle-of-the-road Republican, then perhaps that’s the right tactic. But unlike Huntsman, a wonky billionaire small state governor, Pence was the vice president during the four years when Washington was the capital of the media universe. He has universal name-ID, and then some. He shouldn’t need to play coy to catch up with Chris Sununu, Chris Christie and Liz Cheney for the honor of being the G.O.P.’s outsider media darling of 2024. 

Regardless, media air kisses don’t solve Pence’s larger, existential issue: what exactly is Pence’s lane and is there really any constituency clamoring for his candidacy? After calling around to many aides and former advisers close to the former veep, I couldn’t grasp a cogent strategy for how he could win or, frankly, why he should be president—table-stakes stuff in a general election. Instead, some said it was early days and they were unsure; others offered wishful thinking about a path for Pence based on a DeSantis-Trump scenario. I asked his longtime adviser, Marc Short, whom I’ve interviewed before, for a Q&A about the strategy. It was an opportunity to lay it all out to the skeptics, but I was passed on to his colleague Devin O’Malley, the spokesperson for Pence’s non-campaign, who told me to “stay tuned,” etcetera. 

Nevertheless, O’Malley provided a few on-the-record thoughts regarding Pence’s potential lane in a 2024 primary. “Mike Pence is the steady conservative leader in the field of potential candidates,” he told me. “Stylistically, people are looking for that form of leadership. I think he’s been a steady voice for the conservative movement for close to 30 years.” 

Still, that feels a little broad. What was his wedge issue with other Republican hopefuls who are also deeply conservative? I asked. O’Malley highlighted Pence’s steady support for Ukraine (DeSantis and Trump appear ready to abandon the country) and his fiscal courage to rein in Social Security and Medicare, which has become taboo thanks to Trump. What is the demographic of a Pence voter, besides evangelicals? I wondered. “Working class Americans,” he said, an even broader answer than I could have imagined. Can Pence win back the Trump voter furious at him for actually certifying the election? O’Malley replied that there are “a lot of Americans” who “want [Trump-era] policies back,” although presumably without Trump. 

Eventually, we talked straight math. What share of the Republican primary electorate does Pence win when DeSantis and Trump are sucking up a majority of the voters, I asked O’Malley. “I’m not going to get into strategy questions with you,” he said. 

I Like Mike?

Based on my conversations with other Pence advisers, I got the feeling that they’re still working it all out. In fairness, it’s still early days and there’s always the dream that the brewing DeSantis-Trump hurricane knocks both cars off the highway, or that the anti-Trump faction gets tired of the screaming and instead falls for the quiet, competent type. Team Pence would not be the only ones banking on this fantasy. Glenn Youngkin, Sununu and others are also hoping for this outcome.

Of course, it’s hard to envision these moderate-ish Republicans winning over the same G.O.P. primary voters who nominated the unelectable Kari Lake in Arizona or Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, especially when they’ll be splitting the electoral pie. Perhaps primary voters will take electability more seriously this cycle, but the fact that Trump, who lost the popular vote twice, is leading the polls doesn’t bode well for the wishes of G.O.P. strategists and party poobahs searching for silver linings or pleading for their own version of a 2020 autopsy. 

Could Mike Pence, the good shepherd, herd the primary voters to their better angels by dusting off the old Reagan playbook? “It’s almost the exact opposite of what our job was in 2016, when we joined the ticket in 2016, [which was to] shore up evangelicals and Congress and be a prolific fundraiser. He was the sign that everything is going to be okay,” said a former Pence adviser. “If you flip the script in 2024, if someone other than Trump gets the nomination, you have to convince the Trump base to support that person. You have to bring the party back together or you’re going to lose.” 

That’s a tall order when Republicans are largely divided between those who were turned off by four years of Pence’s unswerving loyalty to Trump and those who resent him for his last-minute, Jan. 6 cri de cœur. Some Pence advisers dream that DeSantis could become so Trumpy that it’s hard to distinguish between the two, thereby leading a whole new crop of anti-Trump primary voters searching for civility and willingness to tackle kitchen table issues. This approach is less Huntsman than it is full-blown Reagan, which is usually the default of a Republican candidate looking for a brand identity. 

Those close to Pence say he’s not really hungry for the culture wars that seem to be the cost of entry to Republican politics these days. He wants to talk about school reform while DeSantis talks about D.E.I. and critical race theory. He wants to talk about kitchen table issues while Trump and DeSantis argue about who is the best warrior against the woke brain flu. Advisers and allies say that the candidates who focused on pocketbook issues in the last election, like Brian Kemp in Georgia and Mike DeWine in Ohio, outperformed the culture warrior upstarts like J.D. Vance, who barely squeaked out of the general election. 

Can Pence sell the vision of a second, more competent Trump administration without the chaos? Surely he would be steamrolled on the debate stage by Trump were he to lay claim to a “Trump-Pence” administration accomplishment. Would he dare stand up to Trump by pulling back the curtain on some of his more shameful episodes, such as Charlottesville or the Muslim ban or Stormy Daniels, the gold star family, January 6th (or the Access Hollywood tape, E. Jean Carroll, I could go on forever…) Doubtful. Pence, Haley and Pompeo will all be running on Trump-adjacent policy wins and when trying to take credit for them, they’ll inevitably be smacked down.

For now, expect to hear more about the “Trump-Pence” administration, in which he does not refer to Trump by name, but instead calls him the president or his former running mate. “Mike’s association with Trump, after standing side by side, the obsequiousness of all that, doesn’t gain points with Trump voters. They hate him the most,” said a Pence adviser. “For those that are ready to move on from Trump, it’s a more sizable group than people think. Pence has got to make his close association with Trump not a thing.”

Perhaps for Pence, this is a chance to retell his story, rewrite his legacy and maybe enact the ultimate moment of revenge. Even if he gets his clock cleaned, it could provide some sort of catharsis, reputational or otherwise. You can even imagine a dramatic, Aaron Sorkin-esque moment in which he drops out and encourages voters to support anyone besides Trump. After all, Pence spent nearly all of four years keeping his thoughts to himself, and hurriedly trying to manage his reputation. His Gridiron Club speech suggests he’s ready to defend himself more vocally now on the trail. In this regard, if nothing else, running for president might be the most powerful thing Pence ever does.