Mike Pence’s Presidential Amnesia

Mike Pence’s Presidential Amnesia

The former vice president has entered the ring for the 2024 Republican nomination—he just wants you to forget he ever set foot in the White House.

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In the old model of right-wing leadership, a tour as vice president served as a major selling point in a pitch for the presidency. It was, after all, the sole basis for Richard Nixon’s claim to Serious Leader status and the only conceivable explanation for George H.W. Bush’s election. Even Bush’s own achievement-challenged second in command, Dan Quayle, felt more or less obliged to half-heartedly launch his own presidential bid in 2000.

But Quayle’s Hoosier successor to the vice presidency, Mike Pence, seems to be pointedly glossing over his most prominent political role. On the website touting his newly announced presidential campaign, Pence’s lengthy biography devotes a scant two sentences to his vice-presidential tenure, even then expending more words on his pre–White House political life: “It was Indiana’s success story, Vice President Pence’s record of legislative and executive experience, and his strong family values that prompted Donald Trump to select Mike Pence as his running mate in July 2016.”

Pence’s campaign launch video, released yesterday, supplies a similarly bowdlerized account of his time at the White House. The Big Man is never named or pictured, and Pence refers to his Trump administration service in the most generic terms imaginable, referencing “the progress we made together toward a stronger, more prosperous America.” This long-studied silence is roughly what you’d expect from a management trainee glossing over a four-year gap in his résumé. You’d never guess that Mike Pence was Donald Trump’s all-purpose liaison to the religious right, his surrogate of choice in culture war set-tos like the phony uproar over Black NFL players taking a knee to protest police killing of unarmed Black men in police custody, and the leader of the Trump White House’s Covid response efforts. On the other hand, you might also miss the fact that the Trump insurrectionists at the US Capitol on January 6 had called for Pence to be hanged as a traitor for refusing to go along with the defeated president’s attempt to engineer a coup—a notion that Trump himself reportedly deemed a pretty good idea.

This isn’t the first time that a former vice president has run against his erstwhile boss for a major-party presidential nomination; John Nance Garner challenged Franklin Roosevelt’s bid for a third term in 1940. But it is the first time that a former veep has tried to defeat his onetime superior by wishing away both men’s term in office. To judge by this initial flurry of campaign agitprop, Mike Pence, even more than Ron DeSantis, wishes to lead a Republican Party where Donald Trump never happened.

To say that this strategy is unlikely to prevail is a colossal understatement. Trump remains the xenophobic, law-breaking, election-denying, racist, and misogynistic center of Republican politics today. Polls show him ahead of DeSantis—an aspirationally competent model of MAGA governance—by a consistent 30-point margin, while Pence brings up the rear of the field in single digits. Pence’s amnesiac campaign materials amount to a tacit acknowledgment of Trump’s unrivaled power: best simply not to disturb the beast rather than to send him on another feeding frenzy. Even when Pence did deign to name-check Trump and explain the reasoning behind his 2024 challenge, at his singularly awkward in-person campaign launch in Iowa, he rushed to invoke abstract platitudes rather than contrasting political visions. Referencing Trump’s appeal to overturn the 2020 election results and throw the vote over to the House of Representatives, Pence said, “I prayed for him… I hoped that he’d come around and see that he was misled about my role. But this was not to be. The Republican Party must be the party of the Constitution of the United States.”

This is a bit like characterizing the Tate-LaBianca murders as an argument over the place of the White Album in the Beatles canon. What’s more, to hold out hope in the efficacy of prayer to change Donald Trump’s character—let alone to provoke a crisis of conscience culminating in an admission of error—is tantamount to a confession that Pence paid zero attention in every cabinet meeting and political event he took part in. Undecided Republican voters would be entirely justified in questioning why they should entrust Pence with the power to negotiate with other unhinged authoritarian leaders as president.

In any event, Pence’s whole problem is that the conservative movement base wants rule by unhinged strongman leaders—the Constitution be damned. That’s why Trump’s poll numbers have increased in the wake of his criminal arraignment in New York, and after a jury held him civilly liable for the sexual assault of E. Jean Carroll. And it’s why Pence desperately wants to change the subject—preferably to the simpler, homespun heyday of the Reagan coalition on the right. “As soon as I heard the voice of the 40th president of the United States, I joined the Reagan revolution and never looked back,” Pence said at his Iowa event. His launch video twice invokes Reagan’s characterization of America as “a shining city on a hill”—itself a complete bastardization of the language of John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon aboard the Arbella—and culminates in a revival-style invocation of St. Gipper: “Above all, he called on Americans to renew optimism and to believe in themselves again, to believe in each other. Every time our nation has produced leadership that has called on this country to do hard things, the American people have always risen to the challenge, and we will again.”

Reagan, of course, never called on the nation to make serious sacrifices of any kind—unless, that is, you count the S&L and junk bond pillaging of the country’s productive interior. But the shaky image of Reagan-led comity on the right is pretty much all that self-styled conservatives have left in Donald Trump’s GOP. The electoral coalition Reagan oversaw was designed to bring true-believing culture warriors like the young Mike Pence in line with a tax-slashing and labor-soaking economic agenda. Now, the true believers are decamping from the pieties of small-government conservatism and calling for Pence’s head in a tumbril. No wonder the guy is supplementing his bouts of self-administered amnesia with little more than warmed-over nostalgia.

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