early and often

Pence Is Finally Embracing His Role As January 6 Spoiler

The former veep on the campaign trail. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

There has understandably been a lot of speculation about the impact on the 2024 Republican presidential contest of the federal criminal indictment of Donald Trump for his failed 2020 election coup. One particular concern of those backing Trump’s GOP rivals is that the former president’s legal problems will blot out the sky, making it harder than ever for other Republican candidates to gain the attention their campaigns need as they desperately pursue the front-runner. But there’s one Trump rival who doesn’t have to worry about getting lost in the fog of indictments and motions and trials: former vice-president Mike Pence. As my colleague Jonathan Chait pointed out, Pence has become the extremely unlikely hero of the narrative surrounding the election-coup indictment:

Up until the 2020 election, the then-vice-president had performed his task as an almost comically obsequious figure, slathering his boss in over the top praise as if he were a captive noble in the court of Genghis Khan. But Pence’s refusal to abide Trump’s authoritarian criminality after the election forms the narrative center of Smith’s indictment. At one point, Trump scolds Pence, “you’re too honest.”

From the point of view of what Pence apparently wanted to accomplish as a presidential candidate, this is the most horrifying development imaginable. He has sought to take partial credit for the alleged accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration without much discussing its bizarre culmination on January 6. The video with which he launched his candidacy in June did not so much as mention the Capitol riot or even Trump, for that matter. It’s rather like a Hall of Fame player writing an autobiography that doesn’t mention baseball. But since well before his formal announcement, Pence has trudged along the campaign trail earnestly trying to recapture his pre-Trump persona as an extremely orthodox conservative pol with a particularly close relationship to the Christian right.

Unfortunately for the would-be president from Indiana, the MAGA faithful did not for a moment forget his “betrayal” of Trump on January 6, and in the early stages of the 2024 contest, Pence has been in the unenviable position of being both universally known and heartily disliked among Republican voters. A recent New York Times–Siena national survey of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents showed Pence with a favorability ratio of 40 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable (by contrast, Trump’s ratio is 75 percent to 21 percent). The same poll showed Pence as the preferred candidate of just 3 percent of GOP voters. And a just-released Times-Siena poll of Iowa, where you’d think Pence would find succor in the state’s large conservative Evangelical population, gave him just 3 percent there as well.

Pence’s lack of popularity isn’t solely owed to his defiance of Trump’s orders on January 6; his signature move as a presidential candidate has been his insistence on articulating the most generally unpopular policy positions available to him, from unflinching support for a near-total national abortion ban, to unapologetic defense of George W. Bush’s “forever war” in Iraq, to cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, to the hoary and largely abandoned GOP shibboleth of free trade.

So now this strikingly unsuccessful presidential candidate — who is struggling to join the seven rivals who have already qualified for the first GOP debate later this month — has become one of the stars of the MAGA-despised law-enforcement effort to put Donald Trump behind bars. And it appears Pence isn’t just accepting, but is luxuriating in, that fate:

If the former veep cannot escape the small, crowded room of candidates perceived as hostile to Trump — along with Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson, and Will Hurd — perhaps he can dominate it, for whatever that’s worth. His new merch and post-indictment interviews suggest he has already made the choice to do that. If not, he’ll have the ultimate opportunity to take a stand against Trump in the likely event he’s subpoenaed by Jack Smith as a star witness to Trump’s conduct in the run-up to January 6, having taken contemporaneous notes on the 45th president’s conversations with him. It’s unclear whether Pence’s campaign will still be alive if and when this happens, but he may be pleased nonetheless if “too honest” — about Trump and about his support for the least popular tenets of conservatism — becomes that campaign’s epitaph.

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Pence Is Finally Embracing His Role As January 6 Spoiler