In the last century, three vice presidents (Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson) have been given the shocking news that they have suddenly been promoted to the position of Most Powerful Man in the World via the death of their ticket-mate. A fourth, Gerald Ford, also got control of the Oval Office in the marginally less stunning development of a presidential resignation (after previously being elevated when the elected veep resigned in disgrace as well). It’s safe to say that what happened to Mike Pence on January 6 wasn’t quite that stunning, but it came pretty close. Arguably he was near to being strung up by terrorists inspired to sack the Capitol by Pence’s personal lord and savior, Donald J. Trump, who made no bones about his belief that his ever-faithful Sancho Panza from Indiana had betrayed him by refusing to steal the presidential election as the congressional officer responsible for counting electoral votes and certifying the next president and vice president.
Since leaving office, Trump has not gone after Pence as he has other “disloyal” Republicans who got in the way of his election coup – notably Georgia Governor Brian Kemp — or those who supported his impeachment or conviction after the Capitol Riot. They have reportedly talked a few times, though Trump did have to find out from the media that Pence was having surgery to install a heart pacemaker, which would indicate any degree of intimacy has died with their administration. Best we can tell, MAGA folk have mixed feelings about Pence at this point, but to the extent that what Trump calls the Big Lie of Biden’s victory has become the bloody shirt of Trumpism, it’s hard to imagine Pence being fully or quickly forgiven for letting POTUS down in his hour of need. It is notable that the former president has begun to talk of Ron DeSantis as a potential 2024 running-mate.
But if Pence wants to recover politically, and particularly if he plans to stay in the mix for a Trump-Pence return engagement, or for the big job itself, he cannot wait around for absolution. He has to put one foot in front of the other and keep making 2024 “lists.” And that’s what he’s begun to do, with a speech in South Carolina late last week and another planned in New Hampshire in early June.
If his speech to the Palmetto Family Council (a Christian conservative group, or as Pence probably thinks of them, “my people”) showed the former veep following a predictable formula of attacking the “avalanche of liberal policies” and the “war on traditional American values” associated with the notorious Marxist Joe Biden, and looking back fondly at the golden age of American greatness represented by the Trump-Pence administration. But he had nothing to say about that awkward moment between the ascent to patriotic paradise and the subsequent descent into socialist hell.
As Pence treads water, potential 2024 rivals are not going to step aside, though like all of them, he will likely have to make the ritual statement (as Nikki Haley has already) that he’ll once again bend the knee if Trump himself follows through withor his comeback threats.
Inevitably, the former veep will be compared to other former veeps who have aspired to the Big Chair and had to run for that privilege after a time out of office. There aren’t that many. Yes, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Hubert Humphrey in 1972 did so, but both had been presidential nominees while still vice president (Nixon in 1960 and Humphrey in 1968). In the last century, there were only three former veeps in a situation analogous to where Pence might be in 2024. The first was Henry Wallace in 1948, who ran on the Progressive ticket against the man who usurped him as Vice President four years earlier, Harry Truman, and underperformed dramatically. The second was the recently deceased Walter F. Mondale, who won with Jimmy Carter in 1976 and and lost with him in 1980. Mondale won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and lost 49 states to Ronald Reagan. The third was Dan Quayle, who was elected veep with George H.W. Bush in 1988 and was defeated with him in 1992, and then ran for president in the 2000 cycle. Quayle dropped out after finishing 8th in the 1999 Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.
These are not terribly encouraging precedents, and Pence has to be haunted by the possibility that the dismal fate of fellow Hoosier and one-time social conservative hero Dan Quayle awaits him. As Politico noted after his South Carolina speech, Pence doesn’t always shine so brightly when he is not basking in the reflected glow of Donald J. Trump:
[T]here was evidence…that the benefits that came with hitching his wagon to Trump had ended when that hitch came undone. As Pence spoke, no cable channel picked up his remarks. Just a few dozen people at any given time watched him live on Facebook, including roughly 55 when the speech ended.
As Trump himself might well say: Sad!