For very nearly four years, Mike Pence managed to become the all-time exemplar of obsequiousness in a job inherently characterized by that quality. As the toadiest toady in vice-presidential history, the white-domed Hoosier was like the loudest barker in the kennel, the quietest bookworm in the library, or the silliest clown in the circus. He didn’t just slavishly submit to the Big Boss’s every erratic whim; Pence sang cringingly frequent hymns of praise to Trump’s “broad shoulders” and other manly leadership virtues.
Then January 6, 2021, happened, when the veep notoriously refused to overturn the Biden-Harris ticket’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. Trump repeatedly warned Pence against the “betrayal” involved in refusing POTUS’s demand that he exceed the purely clerical vice-presidential powers laid out in the Electoral Count Act of 1887. And when Pence made it official, Trump branded him a coward and traitor, even as the mob he had just addressed began its assault on the Capitol, with some rioters reportedly chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”
For the record, Pence really didn’t have the power to do what Trump expected him to do on January 6. Had he refused to acknowledge Biden electors in states the Democrat clearly won, or worse yet, awarded those states to Trump and himself, he would have definitely been overruled by majority votes in both houses of Congress under the same procedures MAGA members of Congress deployed, unsuccessfully, to contest the actual results. Pence would have gone down in history disgraced, and Joe Biden would have still taken office on January 20. But according to the sole standard of loyalty to Trump, Pence refused to fall on his sword for the 45th president, and now his own political future is in serious question.
Until January 6, it had long been assumed that Pence’s yeoman service to the cause, enhanced by his own close ties to the Christian right (whose leaders regarded the veep as the evangelical sherpa to the heathenish Trump), made him the heir to Trump’s political movement, assuming the mogul ever stepped aside. An Axios-sponsored survey of Republicans shortly after the 2020 election showed him leading the 2024 field if Trump didn’t run (with Donald Jr., Nikki Haley, and Ivanka Trump running second, third and fourth, respectively). But a Morning Consult survey after January 6 showed Pence running 41 points behind Trump if both ran in 2024. And then at this weekend’s CPAC conference, which Pence wisely avoided, a straw poll put 2024 preference for the former veep at one percent in fields including and excluding Trump. Think about that: If Trump doesn’t run in 2024, 99 percent of these MAGA activists would prefer anyone other than Pence, who runs 2 points behind Tucker Carlson, 7 points behind Junior, 10 points behind Kristi Noem, and 42 points behind Ron DeSantis (who benefited from some home cooking at the Orlando conference, but still).
In other words, Trump’s activist base in the GOP and the conservative movement appears to share his belief that on January 6, Pence definitively spoiled his long record of subservience. So where does that leave the man Trump lifted from a difficult gubernatorial reelection campaign in 2016 when more notable pols expressed no interest in becoming the veep nominee?
According to Politico, an Indiana protege of Pence’s, representative Jim Banks, is trying to “meld the former president and vice president’s approaches to become a force for the next iteration of the conservative movement” as chairman of the House Republican Study Group, the caucus that was Pence’s own stomping grounds when he was in Congress. During the Trump era, the RSG was almost entirely eclipsed as an ideological pressure group by the aggressively Trumpy House Freedom Caucus, which supplied the White House with two chiefs of staff (Mike Mulvaney and Mark Meadows). Even if it makes a comeback, it’s not clear Pence will himself benefit.
It’s always possible, I suppose, that Trump could forgive Pence for his “betrayal” and validate his MAGA credentials. But the former president’s own speech at CPAC indicated that his fabricated claim of a “rigged election” would be the bloody shirt he will wave for the foreseeable future. In that saga, Pence, along with the “cowardly” Supreme Court and “establishment Republican” pols who finally tired of indulging Trump’s destructive fantasies and pushed him to the White House exit, will always be a villain. And if the GOP does somehow tire of its former leader between now and 2024, will it turn to the man who so recently inspired mockery for the way he crawled in the presence of the tyrant for so long? Can one “betrayal” be forgotten, or conversely, can it cleanse all sins?
Mike Pence has a long road ahead if he wants to become president of the United States.