Former President George W. Bush and Sens. Mitt Romney, Republican stalwarts, won’t support his re-election. Other GOPers, like former House Speakers Paul Ryan and John Boehner, have not indicated where they stand while Sen. Lisa Murkowski is “struggling” with the decision.
With a schism forming, the time is ripe for a high-level official to make the dramatic break that would signal that someone is ready to stand as the leader of the post-Trump Republican Party. I would nominate for this job, Vice President Mike Pence. Unprecedented? Pretty much. But the Trump era is unprecedented too, and Pence signaled, when he agreed that he would be Trump’s running mate, that he’s willing to do the unexpected.
At this point, as President Trump’s support weakens, Pence should weigh the merits of declaring he won’t be vice president for a possible second term. There’s an argument that Pence’s status in Trumpworld might be endangered anyway. If the President continues to trail Joe Biden by double digits in the polls this summer and if the Democratic contender picks a woman of color for his running mate, he could be tempted to shake up his ticket by selecting Nikki Haley or another candidate for VP. Such a move could bring back some of the white suburban women Trump needs to win re-election and remind everyone that he’s not a typical politician.
If we cast our minds back to the distant (feeling) summer of 2016 we can see that Trump was repellent to many mainstream Republican leaders who considered his ugly way of talking and his record of scandal — many involving allegations of sexual misconduct — and stood at arm’s length. Who would have imagined, then, that a puritanical governor of Indiana who refused to lunch alone with a female colleague and, according to Rolling Stone, called his wife “mother,” would harness himself to the thrice-married often-bankrupted Trump?
Although others were confused when Pence made his fateful decision, it affirmed what many Hoosiers long knew: Behind that mild-mannered persona lurks a savvy and opportunistic politician. Pence was, at the time when Trump came calling, a not-so-popular governor of a mid-sized state with grand ambitions. (As reported in my co-authored biography of Pence, he had first voiced White House dreams as a youngster.)
In addition to his big dreams, Pence possessed a certain knack for understanding how modern Republican politics worked. Two failed runs for Congress in 1988 and 1990 led him to a long stint as a radio and TV personality where he fashioned himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” or someone who was “conservative,” but “not angry about it.”
As his announcing gigs helped him hone his speaking style, the reactions he heard from listeners and viewers helped him understand the blend of right wing Christianity and conservative politics that could be potently effective in small town and rural America. When he was ready to get back into politics his pro-business stands made him attractive to donor organizations like the Club for Growth, which helped him fill a winning war chest. Later came backing from the deep-pocketed conservative Koch Brothers whose imprimatur almost certainly made like-minded GOP donors take notice of Pence.
Well established as a Christian Right political figure who was an extremely effective fundraiser, the only cloud hovering over Pence in 2016 was at home in Indiana where mistakes and missteps threatened his future. Trump’s offer gave him a graceful exit — far better to move on than be defeated — and a longshot chance at higher office. The bet paid off.
As veep, Pence has combined abject loyalty and frequent well-timed absences to stay in Trump’s good graces while avoiding many controversies. He didn’t win a truly high-profile assignment until, after the administration’s big early mistakes were made, he was named head of the Coronavirus Task Force. He’s distinguished himself from Trump by speaking calmly, getting along with the nation’s governors, and working hard. And by ceding center stage whenever the President wanted it, he also avoided becoming the focus of critics.
Last week, as the country erupted in protests following the death of George Floyd, Pence was not present when federal officers brutally cleared away demonstrators and the President walked to St. John’s Church and wordlessly hoisted a Bible to signify something about his leadership. Pence was also absent when, on the next day, Trump performed a similar display at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine.
The pandemic and tide of anti-racism sentiment has revealed the limitations of the President as a leader and of his law-and-order posturing. With the election less than five months away, Trump is in grave danger of losing his bid for a second term. This may be why, weeks ago, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee urged its candidates to, for their own good, limit the praise they heap on the incumbent.
With party stalwart Colin Powell announcing he will support Trump’s opponent Joe Biden, and many others reportedly leaning that way, an opening is available for someone with a keen sense of where the political winds blow, a strong instinct for self-advancement, resources of his own and a proven willingness to surprise.
Conditions are perfect, in other words, for Mike Pence to observe that either he needs to spend more time with his family or believes the President would benefit from the excitement that would come were he to run with a fresh face — perhaps former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — beside him. Pence could resign, saying Trump is just too loyal to fire him, and graciously make a path for himself to become the new leader of the GOP come the defeat of the Trump-Haley ticket in November.