There’s not much question that January 6, 2021, was the most momentous day in the public career of then-Vice-President Mike Pence. Depending on your point of view, that was the day Pence heroically prevented a constitutional crisis and stopped an attempted election coup, or it was the day he treacherously stabbed his great benefactor, Donald Trump, in the back by failing to vindicate his stolen-election claims. Either way, it was the big event of a humdrum career in conservative politics that looked headed for a bad end (he was struggling for reelection as governor of the very red state of Indiana) when Trump lifted him to the vice-presidential nomination in the summer of 2016.
That’s why it’s weird that the nearly three-minute video Pence just released to announce his 2024 presidential candidacy doesn’t contain any references to January 6 (unless I somehow missed an image of the event; the video contains a lot of briefly shown images) or, for that matter, any references to Trump, the man who saved his career and whose mobs threatened his life during the Capitol Riot.
Yes, I suppose Pence needed to introduce voters to the persona he exhibited before and after the four long years when he was mainly known as the most sycophantic vice-president in American history — prone to rapturous comments about Trump’s “big shoulders” — and for running interference for the heathenish president among conservative Christians. But the problem is that if you take away his placid then dramatically stormy relationship with Trump, Pence is what my colleague Eric Levitz once called “a bag of day-old white bread: bland and unappetizing but unlikely to upset anyone’s stomach.” That’s an apt description of his launch video as well.
In it, Pence announces his candidacy by droning optimistic bromides about America’s promise to a background of vaguely stirring music and a grandpa’s photo carousel of images of him and his wife with lots and lots of smiling people, many of them members of the armed forces and not a few of them worshipping or praying. Yes, there are a few dark moments when he mentions Joe Biden and “the radical left,” along with briefly glimpsed headlines about trans swimmers, drag-queen story hours, and totalitarian leaders. But it’s mostly upbeat clichés; within the first 12 seconds, he refers to the USA as “a shining city on a hill” (Ronald Reagan is the only president he mentions other than Biden) and as “the land of the free and home of the brave.” Not very challenging stuff.
A low-risk self-presentation may just reflect Pence’s terrible positioning in the 2024 field. Hardly anyone thinks highly of his prospects for winning the nomination; he suffers from the dual curse of being very well known and quite unpopular among Republican base voters. The further we get from the actual experience of January 6, the more it seems Republicans are accepting Trump’s view of what happened, rather than Pence’s. And the fact that the former veep doesn’t even talk about it reinforces his reputation for cowardice in MAGA-land.
The ex-veep’s one positive political attribute is a close connection to old-school Christian-right leaders; it’s very much why his entire campaign depends on showing strength in Iowa, where old-school Christian-right leaders still have some clout. But unfortunately for Pence, Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy are also running Iowa-centric campaigns, and all of them have newer, more interesting “stories” to tell. Beyond that, Scott can thump Bibles with the best of them, and DeSantis is the more appealing apostle of the Trumpism Without Trump that Pence might otherwise represent. At present, Pence’s one big distinguishing feature is his determination to embrace the most unpopular elements of the pre-Trump conservative agenda, from “entitlement reform” to a very restrictive national abortion ban. It’s not a position voters typically reward.
Pence’s extremely narrow path to the presidential nomination requires a spectacular demolition derby to damage the rest of the field, a situation in which his white-bread characteristics could become a feature, not a bug. Maybe that’s why his launch has such a low trajectory.