vision 2020

Could Dumping Pence Be a Last-Minute Game Changer for Trump?

Mike Pence may yet regret letting himself be named the figurehead in charge of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

On two previous occasions I have addressed and dismissed rumors that the president wanted to dump his intensely loyal vice-president, Mike Pence, before voters go to the polls this year. In November 2018, we heard reports that Trump was having his own misgivings about the stolid veep. In August 2019, the person incessantly mentioned to be a possible replacement for Pence, former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, conspicuously pledged her allegiance to Trump-Pence 2020, making it certain that everyone heard the rumors she denied.

On both occasions I figured that Pence was just too valuable to Trump as his ambassador to white conservative Evangelicals to be discarded, despite some reports that Trump thinks he has forged sufficient bonds with that constituency to no longer need help. I cited this insightful comment about Pence from a Los Angeles Times piece:

Pence is regarded by some as a modern version of another Old Testament figure, Daniel, who safeguarded his fellow Jews while functioning as counselor to another pagan ruler, Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel aided the Israelites by appearing to abandon his Jewishness in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. Pence, the argument goes, sets aside his moral standards to retain access to Trump. From his insider perch, he can do more good for religious conservatives than from the outside. And if he were to take that final step to the Oval Office, then the ends would justify the means.

So what might have altered that calculation in the last year? Two things: First, Trump is in very serious danger of not being reelected. He needs a game changer to reset the race, and a fresh veep is a time-honored way to do that, even if it involves (to quote the words said to John McCain in 2008 about choosing Sarah Palin ) “high risk [and potentially] high reward.” Indeed, if, like Trump, you have no real second-term agenda to tout and no capacity to “pivot to the center” and pursue swing voters via messaging or policies, it’s one of the few cards in the deck. In a podcast at FiveThirtyEight in which Nate Silver, Claire Malone, and Perry Bacon Jr. batted around various emergency steps Team Trump could take to turn it all around, a switch in running mates was the one that made the most sense to them.

Second, Trump could perhaps try to blame Pence for his administration’s deadliest and most politically damaging error, its mishandling of COVID-19 from the get-go. The veep is, after all, the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, even though he has consistently given up the spotlight to Trump and to public-health advisers like Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. In an administration with constant personnel changes and little sense of reciprocal loyalty, it wouldn’t be that out of the ordinary for the sycophant-in-chief to be asked to step aside as one last act of service to the warrior-king: taking the fall for a public-health disaster.

In the FiveThirtyEight discussion, Haley was regarded as the most likely Pence replacement. As a woman of color who took down her state’s Confederate flags, she could obviously help address the perception that the president’s reelection effort is one long exercise in white male reactionary culture-war politics. She is also, to an extent, underappreciated by her many media fans, a stone ideologue out of the Jim DeMint–Mark Sanford wing of the South Carolina GOP, a legendary union-hater who is also as pure as Pence on cultural hot-button issues like abortion.

Another name you occasionally hear as a substitute veep is Haley’s own 2016 candidate, Marco Rubio, a Latino pol whose presence on the ticket could arguably be worth a couple of points in must-win Florida. Like Haley’s, his positions on cultural issues would minimize conservative Evangelical heartburn over Pence’s defenestration. If and when the trap door drops on the Hoosier incumbent, all sort of possibilities might open up. A Forbes article last month touted 36-year-old New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a recent Trump favorite, as a potential replacement for Pence.

A final reason it could actually happen now is the strong possibility that the Republican convention in Charlotte and Jacksonville will turn out to be a logistical and public-health fiasco. The GOP will need some counter-programming to distract media from the mess, and an unexpected ticket is probably the most newsworthy thing Trump can offer. He would, however, have a lot of Trump-Pence posters and merch to liquidate.

Could Dumping Pence Be a Last-Minute Game Changer for Trump?