Mike Pence, detached from Donald Trump, finds his old voice


KEENE, NH — Mike Pence delivered his old radio catchphrase as a blessing of sorts at the 2016 Republican National Convention, calling on a wary party to trust his embrace of New York’s conquering billionaire Donald Trump.

“I’m Christian, conservative and Republican – in that order,” Pence assured the crowd.

But when he used the same line Thursday night to open his speech to the Cheshire County Republican Committee, he meant something closer to the opposite. The Republican Party, he warned to a crowd of hundreds at the first presidential primary, was being misled.

“We must resist the politics of personality, the lure of populism unmoored by timeless conservative values,” the former Trump vice president and likely 2024 presidential candidate said to applause.

He described “some in our party” who don’t want to deal with the coming fiscal disasters of rights like Social Security and Medicare, a category that includes both Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R ). He dismissed as a failure of US leaders DeSantis’ recent assertion that the war in Ukraine was just a “territorial dispute”. And he said Republicans need to embrace abortion “now more than ever,” a subtle reference to Trump blaming abortion politics for Republicans’ disappointing 2022 midterm results.

It was Mike Pence unmoored. In early 2016, he originally endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), resisting Trump’s growing popularity for an ideological compatriot. He kept the note he wrote to himself that day: “I’m tired of politics, I just want to come back.”

Now was a second chance to be the man he was known to be before. Pence is betting that in 2024, the Trump disruption he once cheered was more an aberration than a transformation.

“I think now you need a different style of leadership,” Pence had explained a few hours earlier in Manchester, during an interview with the Washington Post. “I think this time also calls for a return to the threshold of civility that existed not so long ago in American politics domestically and still defines how most Americans treat each other every day.”

No Republican was more closely associated with Trump’s presidency than Pence, who served as No. 2, always trying to be at the president’s side, often taking on cleaning duty or rounding sharp edges. He vouched for Trump despite his objections to his plans to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, his sexual assault comments on an “Access Hollywood” tape and his racist attacks on a federal judge. But the pair ultimately broke the 2020 election result, culminating when Trump attacked Pence on Twitter on January 6, 2021, while a violent mob marched on the US Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence!”

Pence has now resumed nurturing the deep relationships with conservative activists he forged while serving in Congress, when he straddled a line of opposition to some of President George W. Bush’s spending priorities as being too liberals, but still found a way to rise through the leadership of the House.

Before Trump, Republicans followed a pecking order when it came to choosing presidential candidates, entertaining the iconoclasts a bit before sacrificing the sizzle for the next: Vice President George HW Bush in 1988, Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan.) 1996, Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) in 2008, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.

“Pence is in a similar position to Biden in the spring of 2019,” said Tim Phillips, a veteran conservative strategist who previously led Americans for Prosperity. “Biden was not leading in the polls. He was not at the top of fundraising. However, he was a known entity, and he knew exactly who he was. This allowed him to be in a position to win when the campaign came his way.

The 2024 campaign, however, has yet to pan out in favor of Pence, who has said he expects to make a decision on whether to run this spring, although his official announcement could come this summer. .

Early polls put him in the middle numbers with little buzz, despite near-universal name recognition. But with a decision to still run months away, he maintains a presidential candidate’s schedule, criss-crossing early states for private meetings with activists, delivering political speeches with visits to former cathedrals of Reagan conservatism. – the Goldwater Institute, Bob Jones University, the American Enterprise Institute, the Club for Growth and Liberty University.

He still argues that Trump was the only Republican who could have beaten Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He still credits Trump with breathing new life into a “dying political party.” And he still champions some of Trump’s pivots away from classic conservatism, including criminal justice reforms in the First Step Act that reduced some sentencing guidelines.

“I think we have changed the national consensus on China. I think $250 billion in tariffs on China was an idea whose time had come,” he said in the interview.

In an interview Saturday with SiriusXM’s “Breitbart News,” Pence also said he was “baffled” by the possibility that Trump could be arrested if a Manhattan district attorney successfully secures an indictment on related charges. to money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels. Trump angrily called for protests on Saturday if such an arrest occurs.

“It smacks of the kind of political prosecution we faced during the days of the Russian hoax and the whole phone impeachment thing,” Pence said, referring to a special counsel investigation and Trump’s first impeachment.

But in other ways, Pence has broken with Trump and many other Republicans, with plans for a major speech Tuesday outlining his proposed changes to Social Security and Medicare.

“I know that the president has made it clear that he is aligned with Joe Biden on Social Security and Medicare,” Pence said. “Joe Biden’s policy is insolvency.”

Trump’s stance on not making changes to Medicare and Social Security remains unchanged from 2016 and 2020. “My perception has always been that this was a work in progress,” Pence said. . “I was optimistic that we were going to get there.”

He has written and spoken publicly about Trump’s role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election result and inspire the rioters who attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, saying history would hold Trump accountable. But his attorneys have also filed objections to Pence testifying before a grand jury investigating Trump’s role, arguing that at least some of what he would be questioned about could be covered by Trump’s “speech or debate” clause. the US Constitution, which protects the legislature. investigative actions of the executive branch.

“I’m limited in what I can say,” Pence said. “But I believe the decision to subpoena a former vice president of the United States for actions taken as president of the Senate is unconstitutional.”

When asked in Manchester if he would still run on the ticket trump had the former president took his advice and conceded the election in 2020, Pence stopped walking to his next appointment and thought for a moment.

“What a big guess that was,” he said, without offering an answer.

Then he told a story, quoting almost verbatim from his recent memoir, about a private conversation with Trump in the Oval Office, with Pence standing by the couch by the clock. His suggestion that Trump “bow down” and run again in 2024. A moment of pause in the President’s face.

“He just pointed at me, then squinted and walked into the back room,” Pence said of Trump, who never took the advice. “And I will always wish he had.”

Many Republican voters, however, remain skeptical of Pence – with some die-hard Trump loyalists viewing him as a traitor for refusing to void the 2020 election and some of those eager to move past the Trump era doubt the guy. who spent all those years square-jawed and standing right behind Trump.

In a recent episode of “The Focus Group,” a podcast on conservative anti-Trump website The Bulwark, Republican strategist Sarah Longwell shared excerpts from a focus group with two Trump voters who, like Pence, also identify as evangelicals. While attendees were more sympathetic to Pence than some of the non-evangelical groups — which often bluntly despised him — they, too, did not support him as a Republican candidate.

Several said they didn’t know much about Pence or what he stood for, with one man comparing him to Vice President Harris, President Biden’s much-criticized No. 2. “I almost feel like he’s the Donald Trump equivalent of Kamala Harris, where I can’t name a single thing she’s done,” the man said.

“Everyone said the same thing about Mike Pence: he would be a good neighbor, but why would anyone vote for him?” said Longwell. “It’s not just that they wouldn’t vote for him, but that person would vote for him.

Pence advisers say the presidential campaign has only just begun and there is plenty of time.

“He has 95% identity, but most people don’t know who he is,” said an adviser to Pence, who spoke on the campaign strategy on condition of anonymity. “When they meet this guy, they really like him.”

Pence works voters with frictionless comfort born of thousands of hugs and smiles in countless halls with voters and activists. He knows how to show his teeth for a sweet half-smile that looks natural in the photo line. He makes eye contact with every voter he meets, pairs his stock speech with folksy language and brags about his three grandchildren born in the past two years.

At the bar at the Keene Best Western, Ernest White, 38, a shovel operator with a long beard and an empty beer glass, said he was ready to choose Pence over Trump after meeting the former vice president in person.

“I just felt good. It felt really good to shake his hand,” White said. “I felt comfortable.”

Parker reported from Washington.


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