President Mike Pence? Understanding the man who could succeed Trump

Be careful what you wish for: the smooth ideologue is next in line if Trump falls
June 21, 2017

As scandal engulfs Donald Trump’s presidency, attention has turned, increasingly, to the man who would stand to gain from his downfall—Vice President Mike Pence. In May, hearings took place in the House of Representatives and Senate on the growing evidence of election-meddling by Russia. The FBI launched an investigation. Then in June, James Comey, the former head of the FBI, testified before Congress about Trump’s attempts to influence that investigation. Now Trump is officially under FBI investigation for obstruction of justice. Republicans in Washington and Conservatives across the United States are beginning to imagine a post-Trump world. They are whispering “President Pence.”

As vice president, Pence is the second-highest official in the land, a “heartbeat” away from the top job. But he has no actual power or even meaningful duties, apart from casting the deciding vote on the rare occasion when the Senate is deadlocked. “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” moaned John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, in 1793. Yet it was also Adams who said, “I am nothing, but I may be everything.” And so it proved when he succeeded George Washington, a move that has been repeated many times since. The vice presidency remains the surest route, however winding, to the presidency. It was the path taken by unloved figures like Richard Nixon and George HW Bush. The death of incumbent presidents elevated Harry Truman (1945) and Lyndon Johnson (1963). The most resonant example today may be Gerald Ford, vice president during the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon’s presidency and the most unlikely of all “accidental” presidents.

Pence has wisely tried to quell all such talk. It can only injure him with Trump, who is thin-skinned even at the best of times and vindictive when things turn against him, as they seem to do almost daily. Possible tension between the two men may also arise from their stark temperamental differences—the roguish Trump vs the pure, devoutly Christian Republican Pence. Reports that Pence refuses to dine alone with any woman who is not his wife—he allegedly calls Mrs Pence “mother”—led to a snicker-fest on Twitter, summed up neatly in the Los Angeles Times. Were Pence’s precautions “a sign of marital devotion and respect? Or a signal that the Pences don’t trust Mike Pence to be alone with a woman? Or perhaps don’t trust a woman to be alone with Mike Pence?”

It is easy enough to laugh at Pence’s social conservatism, but it is precisely his profile as a cultural and religious warrior that got him on to Trump’s ticket. He is a cleansing agent, a balm to right-wing moralists who were offended by Trump’s all-purpose ungodliness. Pence, we may suppose, is offended too. After the release in October of the Access Hollywood recording in which Trump was heard lewdly boasting about kissing and grabbing women without their consent, Pence twisted himself in knots, first saying that Trump’s “words and actions” were indefensible, but then insisting they were mere words, after all. What the deeply-conservative vice president really thinks of Trump’s three marriages, his stated willingness to treat women in the crudest way and his association with the Miss Universe beauty pageant, one can only guess.

Constant self-reinvention is the key to survival in Trumpworld and Pence is better at it than most. Early on, he brashly suggested he would model his vice presidency on that of Dick Cheney, who was widely regarded as the senior partner to George W Bush (at least during their first term) and generally reckoned the most powerful VP in history. Trump, however, rages at any suggestion of weakness. Pence adjusted and said he was following the more modest example of Bush Sr, the self-effacing adjutant to Ronald Reagan. That was in early May. A few weeks later, when I asked Pence’s press secretary for his latest thinking on the subject, I was politely told that “the vice president and his office don’t participate in these types of profile stories.”

Who can blame him? Trump, the most avid media-consumer in the history of the modern presidency, bristles at excess coverage of high-ranking staff. In his mind, each new nugget of praise for them only diminishes him. When the Svengali-like powers of Trump’s closest adviser, Steve Bannon, began being reported by the media, the attention nearly cost Bannon his job. The risks are even greater for Pence. However limited his role and functions, there is a crucial and dangerous distinction between him and Trump’s other top people—he was elected, not appointed, making him the one high administration official that Trump can’t summarily dismiss (“You’re fired!”). The president must find other ways to diminish and belittle his assured second in command, whose ability to project personal warmth was honed in his years spent as a radio and television talk show host.

If this weighs on Pence, he hasn’t let on. Discipline is one reason. Another is realism. When he says he is grateful to be Trump’s vice president, he probably means it. Pence was in the House of Representatives from 2001-13 before becoming governor of Indiana. A year ago, when he was invited on to the ticket, Pence had only a middling chance of re-election as governor after a mediocre first term. His predecessor, Mitch Daniels, was both better known and more respected. A leading “reform conservative,” Daniels had combined innovative economic policies with a “truce” on divisive social issues, like same-sex marriage and he had become a front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, before eventually deciding he wouldn’t run (he is now president of Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana).

In contrast to Daniels, Pence seemed like a throwback to the defunct “movement conservatism” of the last century, with its stale “government is the problem” rhetoric. Governor Pence hit a low point in 2015 when he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation which would have permitted discrimination of various kinds on the basis of religious “conscience.” In effect, this meant a homophobic landlord could refuse to rent to gay or transgender tenants (or, by extension, to Muslims). There were even larger implications on health coverage—the most heated domestic policy in America. Since there is no system of US national insurance, most people rely on medical plans paid for by their employers. If the owner of a firm in Indiana was opposed to abortion or even birth control on religious grounds, Pence’s new act would have allowed that owner to drop those services from the plan offered to employees. Pence himself is militantly “pro-life” and signed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws of any US state (a federal judge recently blocked some of its provisions). The news site Common Dreams reported that Pence’s new rules “banned abortions when a fetal anomaly was detected; mandated the burial and cremation of miscarried or aborted remains; restricted fetal tissue donation; and required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital or to have an agreement with a doctor who does.” These laws were passed in the name of “religious liberty,” but on closer inspection looked a lot like state-supported bigotry.

The courts did for the abortion measures and, under pressure from civil rights advocates, Pence reversed himself on the “religious freedom” stunt. But it seemed less a moral awakening than a failure of nerve. Conservatives were enraged by his sudden about-turn. “Pence threw them under the bus,” said Erick Erickson, an influential conservative. “There was real bitterness in the evangelical community that Pence clearly did not have the courage of his convictions.” A newly empowered President Pence might seek to assuage those voters, and he might have majorities in Congress, not to mention allies on the Supreme Court, willing to endorse his changes.

Pence toyed with the idea of running for president himself. But after his botched attempt at legislative reform had alienated his conservative base, it looked as though he might not even get a second term in the Indiana statehouse. What saved him was canny political judgment—and good timing. In the spring of 2016, Trump raced far ahead of the field in the campaign to gain the Republican presidential nomination, confounding the party leadership. By the end of April, he had almost clinched the nomination. The one remaining obstacle was the last-stand candidacy of Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas, who had staked everything, as it happened, on Pence’s state, Indiana. For the Republican Party, and their “Never Trump” leaders, the stakes were also high. If Trump were to be stopped, it would be here. If he failed to win the nomination in Indiana, the momentum would go from his campaign, Pence, the true-believing conservative, could be the hero of the hour and his reputation would be restored. He had only to come out in support of Cruz. In presidential primaries, the support of a governor can be crucial for determining how the state votes. Ideologically, suporting Cruz made obvious sense. Pence and Cruz weren’t just like-minded. They were ideological twins: both evangelicals and social conservatives; both ringleaders of the Tea Party crusade to shut down Barack Obama’s government—Pence, then a Congressman, in 2011; Cruz, in the Senate, in 2013.

And yet Pence kept delaying his endorsement—strangely, since Cruz had a strong lead in pre-election polls. Just a few days before the primary, he was ahead by 16 points. Why did Pence hold back? Because practising politicians see things others don’t, for example, they see how flimsy polling had become in the 2016 election. Indiana Republicans might say they favoured Cruz, the custom-built conservative, but in the privacy of the booth, Pence grasped, they would go for Trump. It was happening every-where else, even in states like Mississippi and Alabama, which had seemed prime Cruz territory. Trump had won both. There was also Cruz’s decision to wage his Indiana campaign on the “transgender bathroom” issue—that is, in support of state-level initiatives to bar transgender people (teenagers in many cases) from using the washroom of their choice. It was a miscalculation. Pence knew it. He’d tried himself to score political points by using cultural issues, and the plan had backfired. “Religious freedom” wasn’t selling this season.

This perhaps explains why when, finally, on the last Friday before the election, he endorsed Cruz—he also, more or less, endorsed Trump. When Trump coasted to victory in Indiana, effectively ending Cruz’s campaign, Pence’s equivocation had been of central importance. Out of such small clever guesses are very large careers made. On 16th July, Trump announced that Pence would be his running mate.

Initially conservatives argued, or pretended, that Pence really was a possible Cheney, the senior partner, who would lend ideological prestige to Trump. Pence knew better. All excitement flowed from Trump. It was obvious during campaign stops. Trump would taunt Pence, it has been reported, by reminding him his election crowds were smaller than the ones Trump’s children drew. Pence joins in the “laughter.” He is a good soldier. Or as he put it, a loyal “servant.” The language comes from the Bible. Pence often quotes scripture. And all his views—his politics of proscription (against “choice,” against same-sex marriage, against a glass of wine sipped in the company of any woman not his wife) come straight from Sunday school.

Pence also has a second liturgy, the teachings of another Indiana native, a former telecoms executive and management guru named Robert K Greenleaf, who was at the forefront of the movement to humanise corporate life, putting “people ahead of profits,” in the 1960s and 70s. Greenleaf wasn’t a right-winger. His theories are summarised in a small pamphlet, The Servant as Leader, which draws on the thought of Albert Camus and, especially, Herman Hesse’s novel Journey to the East and its character Leo, who performs menial tasks for his presumed betters, “but who also sustains them with his spirit and his song.”

In Greenleaf’s retelling: “He is a person of extraordinary presence. All goes well until Leo disappears. Then the group falls into disarray and the journey is abandoned. They cannot make it without the servant Leo… After some years of wandering [the narrator] finds Leo and is taken into the Order that had sponsored the journey. There he discovers that Leo, whom he had known first as servant, was in fact the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, a great and noble leader.”

"It is startling how untouched by scandal Pence has been. In the torrent of White House leaks, he's never mentioned"
The path from servant to leader was a pet theme of several of the speeches that Pence gave this spring. “Servant leadership, not selfish ambition, must be the animating force of the career that lies before you,” he told the graduates of Grove City College, a conservative liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania.

“For it is written, whoever would be first of all must be servant of all.” Nobody has told Pence’s boss this. The demeanour of cheerful, patient subservience is a wise one to adopt—Pence must have calculated that. No vice president in history has entered office amid so much expectation that the man above him will fail. And for this reason, none has been forced to such extremes of tact. Pence, let it be said, has been faultless. A good example came when Trump announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords. The decision itself wasn’t a surprise—on the contrary, it was a foregone conclusion, fulfilling a campaign pledge. But Trumpism is an exercise in theatre—Trump himself demands it, and his partners, or enablers, in the media, are only too happy to provide it. In this case they helped build the illusion of suspense from the time he left the G7 Summit in Sicily (on 27th May) until he delivered the verdict on 1st June in the White House Rose Garden, the bower outside the Oval Office which creates the atmosphere of the beloved elected monarch leaving his stately labours to speak directly with the public.

Before King Donald appeared, it was Pence, with his silver hair, smooth skin, and his Dorian Gray look of embalmed youth, who modestly stepped up to the lectern and opened up a black binder, glancing up at intervals as he read (“put American jobs and American consumers first… put American energy and American industry first… put the forgotten men and women of America first”). Pence then closed his binder, received a quick handshake from Trump and then seemed to disappear into the grove. The Veep had been reduced to royal herald.

Hours later, Pence was on view again, in the same dark suit and red tie, this time on Trump-friendly Fox News, saying that in pulling out of Paris, Trump was “fighting for American jobs.” The next day, there was a slight turn in the news epicycle, as commentators weighed Trump’s curious failure to say anything about climate change. He has a history of blunt assertions, including calling it a “hoax” perpetrated by China—so why not now? It was left to Pence, once again, to go on Fox and smoothly brush away the issue as a hobbyhorse of “the left.”

Trump had delivered for the right, but not without a tussle behind the scenes. The Washington Post described the back-and-forth between the “economic nationalist” Bannon and Trump’s globally-minded daughter, Ivanka. Pence got a single mention, in passing. He wasn’t involved in one of the biggest decisions of Trump’s presidency. He has all but disappeared. And it was the safest thing to do.

It is a credit to his astuteness that Pence’s name has only shown up in relation to one Trump scandal—the first and most important one, from which all the others derive. This was the case of Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser who resigned after a mere 24 days in office, beginning the train of investigations of illegal contact between Trump officials and Russia during the transition period. It was revealed that Flynn discussed Obama’s sanctions against Russia in a phone call with the Russian ambassador. It was this episode that prompted the multiple investigations by Congress, the FBI and independent counsel. Pence’s role in all this was as the patsy, sent forth to vouch publicly for Flynn. When Flynn was forced out, it was for having lied to Pence. In his one brush with scandal, the VP came out as the victim.

It is startling how untouched by scandal Pence has been. The pattern is repeated time and again. Each day brings a fresh torrent of White House leaks, new tales of unseemly turf struggles and petty in-fighting. Pence is almost never mentioned—although suspicions grow that he was aware of more than he has let on.

Being the accomplished “servant” could, in theory at least, deliver the high prize of the presidency to Pence. But what kind of leader would he be? At 58, he has chiefly been a professional ideologue. He was born Catholic, but born again as evangelical and a child of the Reagan Revolution. He is an embattled enemy of big government, and is untroubled by ideological complexity or even much interested in ideas. He was briefly connected with a think tank in Indianapolis, the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, which dispensed familiar right-wing nostrums—against public spending on schools and healthcare, for the spread of religious doctrine—the same positions he took in Congress and in the Indiana statehouse. He recites conservative dogma as easily as he does religious homilies, is passionately stirred by the evils of the welfare state, and mistily embraces low taxes.

His talent, and it is considerable, is for “messaging.” It is the same talent that propelled Reagan to the White House and, although Reagan was not privately devout in the same way, Pence may nonetheless be his most authentic heir. He has studied him more closely than supposedly brighter politicians like Cruz and Marco Rubio. Pence grasps, with prehensile strength, that Reagan’s genius began not in ideological fortitude, but in his chamber of commerce evangelism, developed in his years as a spokesman for General Electric, and earlier still in radio. Reagan was a “great communicator” because he had mastered the art of salesmanship, which always puts the customer ahead of the merchandise, and has made Pence a favourite talking-head on the right.

Pre-political Reagan is remembered as a creature of Hollywood and the big screen. But he began his career in radio, in the Midwest (Des Moines, Iowa)—and his greatest asset, all the way up through his presidency, was his voice. So too with Pence. He has a law degree and has spent his adult life in and around politics, but found his métier on talk radio, in a call-in show he did for seven years in the 1990s, which was eventually carried on 19 stations in Indiana. He referred to himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf”—calm, genial, affable, but just as uncompromising. “I’m conservative, but I’m not mad at everyone about it,” is another Pence-ism.

When he finally was elected to Congress, on his third try, in 2000, he promptly bought a broadcast quality-microphone and digital phone system and set up a makeshift studio in a tiny space near the washroom of his small office, so he could continue to phone into radio programmes back in Indiana, chatting up hosts and callers. No other House member had thought to do it; others flocked to him for advice—on radio technology and also communication lessons (if you’re the guest, always address the host by name, and never be funnier than he or she is). The Republican leadership saw what he could bring. The last vice president from Indiana, Dan Quayle, predicted that Pence’s voice would be an asset in the presidential campaign. “It’s very pleasing,” said Quayle. “It’s very Midwestern. People like to hear the voice.”
"Pence's voice is an exceptional instrument, the best in politics today"
This was an understatement. Pence’s voice is an exceptional instrument, the best in politics today. He is not an orator in the class of Obama, but he is a far better extemporaneous speaker and matchless with a text in front of him. There is no more decent man in American politics than Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate. But in their one television debate, Pence met him with half lies and outright prevarications, and when Kaine fought back Pence handled him as though he were a crank midnight-caller.

Go on YouTube and watch the top Congressional Democrat, Senator Chuck Schumer, as he gives a speech in the Senate or reading a statement at a press conference. Schumer, a Harvard graduate who studied with the brilliant policy thinker, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is one of the best informed politicians of our time. But see him with his spectacles pushed to the end of his nose, the words dropping like tiny anvils. He is an amateur in need of coaching. Then watch Pence in the Rose Garden—not just a professional, but a maestro. The words flow with homespun silkiness, rise and fall with oddly soothing fervour, just like Reagan’s.

Journalists studying Pence’s dozen years in the House pointed out that his legislative accomplishments were nil. They’re right, but they missed the point. The Republican House in his period was about obstruction, not governance. It was about making a case and holding the base together. Pence excelled at it and quickly rose to powerful positions there, becoming the third-ranking Republican and at one point the favourite of hardliners who wanted him as Speaker (instead of the next-in-line choice, John Boehner).

He may be the best speaker, with a lower-case S, in politics. But speaking is only a small part of governing. “The role of vice president is in many ways a good fit for him,” a seasoned Pence-watcher told me recently, “because of its ceremonial aspects—as opposed to being a policy person or executive guy. He’s got to be thinking of that.”

Trump has planted in many the fear of the over-strong executive. But much more of American history is filled with dire instances of leaders who failed not because they were too strong, but because they were too weak. A vacuum was created and the wrong forces, and people, moved to fill it. It was a sequence of weak presidents who allowed the widening divisions which caused the Civil War and then failed to heal the nation in its aftermath. It was weak presidents too who succumbed to the power of oligarchs, and so gave us the Great Depression. Oscar Wilde was right when he said there is a tyranny of the weak. This is the fate America faces now, no matter what happens in the months and years ahead.

It is one reason some find the prospect of President Pence more alarming than President Trump. Pence’s pet expressions include this one: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican—in that order.” The unacknowledged joke is that the hierarchy is meaningless, because the three identities are all the same. This is the ideology of the American right, which Trump’s victory briefly promised to undo. That was the implicit promise of his candidacy, though it now belongs to the distant past.

Meanwhile, another half-forgotten memory is springing back to life. This was the agenda laid out a year ago by the consensus Republican leader of the moment, not Trump, or Bannon, or any of the advisers now competing for his attention, but Pence’s friend Paul Ryan. In the spring of 2016, Ryan released a series of policy statements titled “A Better Way,” which gave detailed prescriptions on poverty (get the underclass off welfare), Scrooge-like healthcare (it drives up fees for the poor, the elderly and the sick). Ryan’s plan is now awaiting Senate approval. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will deny healthcare cover to some 23m people who do get assistance today. The plan will also shift the tax burden away from the rich and on to the middle class and poor, and remove regulations to protect the environment. This is the true Republican agenda—spelled out more clearly than anything generated by Trump’s chaotic White House.

It all awaits a president with good contacts on Capitol Hill and stable working habits: a president who doesn’t mind at all not being centre stage. It awaits a servant-leader, though he must move cautiously. “Those in Washington like Mike Pence, [Chief of Staff] Reince Priebus and Ryan who think they can manipulate Trump might be in for a surprise,” Maureen Dowd, the matchless New York Times columnist, warned in January. “IT WON’T HAPPEN!” She was right. But if Trump should manoeuvre himself out of office, those patient Midwesterners, and their allies, may yet have their day. The ideologues will rule as the servant reigns, and we may all be the worse off for it.



Additional photo credits: Mike Pence Twitter, Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images