early and often

President Mike Pence Would Be Worse Than Trump

Beware any attempt to rehabilitate him.

Not the candidate anyone should be looking for. Photo: John. Amis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Not the candidate anyone should be looking for. Photo: John. Amis/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mike Pence, erstwhile Trumpian, is making more noise about running for president in 2024. The former vice-president has been campaigning for Brian Kemp’s reelection in the Georgia governor’s race and traveling to Iowa, where he is attempting to carve out a new path for himself in the Republican Party. He even visited the Charlottesville, Virginia, memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed in a 2017 white-supremacist riot that then-President Donald Trump infamously tried to downplay.

Pence has been persona non grata in Trumpworld since he refused to back the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, nor illegally attempt to block Biden’s victory the day of the Capitol riot. At least in theory, that might make Pence more palatable to moderates who wax nostalgic for the patrician, well-mannered Republicans of yore or even the so-called mavericks like John McCain. Such sentiment has already benefited former GOP big shots like George W. Bush, who in retirement has reinvented himself as a lovable, if doddering, grandfather who paints and pals around with Michelle Obama. In the wake of Trump’s madness, Bush’s eight years in the Oval Office are reimagined as a time of comity and ease. For the pundits and media mandarins who prize style or decorum over substance, the return of a Bush- or Ronald Reagan–style presidency — these men, they say, at least respected democracy — seems almost welcome, especially if Joe Biden is doomed no matter what.

But even the remote prospect of a President Mike Pence should be feared as much as any Trump redux, if not more so. Respectability politics will be merged with the Evangelical, anti-government hard right that liberals only had a taste of under Trump. A Pence presidency would be the ultimate triumph of the Koch family–and–Mitch McConnell–wing of the GOP, one that has practiced a dark fusion of Ayn Rand–ian economics and Christian fervor for decades. Trump was their pawn; Pence would be a true king.

While many liberals believe Trump was on the cusp of installing a fascist regime in the U.S., he was nowhere close in actuality. As the political scientist Corey Robin has argued, Trump was a relatively weak president, unfocused and unable to aggressively implement much in the way of reactionary policy. Despite commanding significant majorities in the House and Senate, his White House could not force through a repeal of Obamacare, something Republicans had been campaigning on for much of the decade. Rather than radically realign politics, as Reagan did when he blasted away at the New Deal consensus, Trump flailed from crisis to crisis, rarely achieving any kind of far-reaching executive agenda.

What Trump ultimately did, in most circumstances, was what any Republican president in the late 2010s would have done. He aggressively deported immigrants, though Barack Obama didn’t show much leniency for most of his eight years, either. Trump gutted the EPA and slashed various environmental regulations, turning the government over to energy lobbyists. He pulled out of the Paris climate accord. He exited the Iran nuclear deal. And he appointed lots of judges — but this was mostly McConnell’s doing, along with the Federalist Society. All Trump had to do was pick names off a list. Before 2017, it’s unlikely Trump would have known who Neil Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett were if they were standing naked in Mar-a-Lago.

Trump is a danger because he undermines faith in democracy, he lies repeatedly, and he is extraordinarily reckless. But it’s important to remember that Republican competency does not guarantee any kind of safety or security for anyone, in America or abroad. The Bush administration was stocked with the best and brightest of the neoconservative movement; Dick Cheney was remarkably seasoned, one of the great operators in American history. Trump and his ilk would have probably been too shambolic to pass something like the Patriot Act or even invade Iraq. Trump’s vaguely isolationist instincts and inability to bring his attention to any subject for too long likely spared America some disastrous foreign engagement.

In Pence, America would quickly come to understand the most sinister aspects of the Republican Party. Deeply socially conservative, Pence would have a pliant Supreme Court to defend whatever measures his White House undertook; it’s not hard to envision a President Pence marshaling a federal abortion ban through a GOP-controlled Congress, or quietly encouraging a legal challenge of Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The 2015 decision was 5-4. Barrett, a hard-line conservative, has since replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

To understand what Pence’s economic agenda would look like, it’s best to examine what Senator Rick Scott of Florida is trying to get his fellow Republicans to campaign on this fall. The Trump Republican faction of the party could stomach a degree of economic populism — Trump did not campaign on slashing Social Security or Medicare — but Scott and his traditionalist allies prefer austerity and tax cuts on the wealthy at all costs. Currently Scott, as chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, is arguing poor and working-class people should pay far more in taxes and all legislation should sunset after five years. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would disappear unless Congress voted to reauthorize them. What’s left of America’s 20th-century welfare state could disappear overnight. Given the trajectory of the Senate and the House, it’s plausible that any Republican who wins in 2024, including Pence, would govern with large majorities come 2025. The Scott agenda, under Pence at least, would get a hearing.

Meanwhile, Pence could easily revive the Bush-era foreign-policy prerogatives, pushing the American military into more global conflicts and further bloating the Pentagon budget. The most hawkish Republicans, hungry for fresh confrontations abroad, will have a much freer rein in Pence’s orbit. It is not difficult to imagine how the existing conflict with Russia over Ukraine, or a potential conflict with China, would play out to more dangerous extremes.

Democrats should ultimately hope Trump, and not Pence, claims the Republican nomination in 2024 because Trump is more beatable. Like Pence, Florida governor Ron DeSantis — who is more effectively aping Trumpism — should be feared too, since he would run a strong race and likely attempt to implement at least as destructive GOP policies if elected. In the end, Trump is probably the general-election opponent Democrats want. Even with lackluster support for Biden, Trump is polarizing enough to draw enormous Democratic turnout. His vulnerabilities are plain. If Mike Pence is campaigning against Biden, he will not make gaffes, slander allies, or take to social media to broadcast inanities. He will not be embroiled in any sex scandals. He could be what any Republican hopes for: a chance for a swift return to power.

President Mike Pence Would Be Worse Than Trump