This is not the candidate we should be looking for.
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Former Trumpian Mike Pence is making more noise about his bid for president in 2024. The former vice president campaigned for the re-election of Brian Kemp in the Georgia gubernatorial race and surrendered in Iowa, where he is trying to chart a new course for himself in the Republican Party. He even visited the memorial in Charlottesville, Va., dedicated to Heather Heyer, who was killed in a 2017 white supremacist riot that then-President Donald Trump infamously tried to downplay.
Pence has been persona non grata in Trumpworld since refusing to support the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, or illegally attempt to block Biden’s victory on the day of the Capitol Riot. At least in theory, this could make Pence more palatable to moderates who grow nostalgic for the patrician, well-behaved Republicans of yore or even so-called mavericks like John McCain. Such a sentiment has already benefited former GOP bigwigs like George W. Bush, who, in retirement, reinvented himself as a doting, albeit doting, grandfather who paints and befriends Michelle Obama. In the wake of Trump’s madness, Bush’s eight years in the Oval Office are being reframed as a time of courtesy and ease. For pundits and media mandarins who favor style over substance, the return of a Bush-style or Ronald Reagan-style presidency – these men, they say, at least respected democracy – seems almost welcome, especially if Joe Biden is doomed no matter what.
But even the distant prospect of a President Mike Pence should be feared as much as any Trump redux, if not more. The politics of respectability will be fused with the evangelical, anti-government hard-right that liberals only had a taste of under Trump. A Pence presidency would be the ultimate triumph for the Koch family and the Mitch McConnell wing of the GOP, which has practiced a dark fusion of Ayn Rand-ian economy and Christian fervor for decades. Trump was their pawn; Pence would be a real king.
While many liberals believe Trump was close to installing a fascist regime in the United States, he was far from close in reality. As political scientist Corey Robin has argued, Trump was a relatively weak president, unfocused and unable to aggressively implement much reactionary politics. Despite large majorities in the House and Senate, his White House was unable to push through the repeal of Obamacare, something Republicans had campaigned on for much of a decade. Rather than radically realign policy, as Reagan did when he castigated the New Deal consensus, Trump has swung from crisis to crisis, rarely achieving a far-reaching executive agenda.
What Trump ultimately did, in most cases, is what any Republican president in the late 2010s would have done. He aggressively deported immigrants, though Barack Obama also didn’t show much leniency for most of his eight years. Trump gutted the EPA and cut various environmental regulations, handing over government to energy lobbyists. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. He left the Iran nuclear deal. And he appointed many judges – but that was mostly McConnell’s work, along with the Federalist Society. All Trump had to do was choose names from a list. Before 2017, it’s unlikely Trump would have known who Neil Gorsuch, Bret Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett were if they were naked at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump is a danger because he undermines faith in democracy, he lies repeatedly, and he is extraordinarily reckless. But it’s important to remember that Republican jurisdiction does not guarantee any kind of safety or security for anyone, in America or abroad. The Bush administration was teeming with the best and brightest members of the neoconservative movement; Dick Cheney was remarkably seasoned, one of the great operators in American history. Trump and his ilk would probably have been too chaotic to pass something like the Patriot Act or even invade Iraq. Trump’s vaguely isolationist instincts and inability to focus his attention on any topic for too long have likely spared America a disastrous foreign engagement.
In Pence, America would quickly come to understand the more sinister aspects of the Republican Party. Deeply socially conservative, Pence would have a flexible Supreme Court to defend whatever actions his White House takes; it’s not hard to imagine President Pence arranging a federal ban on abortion through a GOP-controlled Congress, or quietly encouraging a legal challenge of Oberefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. The 2015 decision was 5-4. Barrett, a hardline conservative, has since replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
To understand what Pence’s economic agenda would look like, it’s best to look at what Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is trying to get fellow Republicans to campaign for this fall. The Republican Trump faction of the party might support some economic populism — Trump hasn’t campaigned to cut Social Security or Medicare — but Scott and his traditionalist allies prefer austerity and cuts at all costs. taxes on the rich. Currently, Scott, as chairman of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, argues that the poor and working people should pay far more taxes and everything the legislation is expected to expire after five years. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would disappear unless Congress votes to allow them again. What remains of the 20th century American welfare state could disappear overnight. Given the trajectory of the Senate and House, it is plausible that any Republican who wins in 2024, including Pence, would govern with large majorities in 2025. Scott’s agenda, under Pence at least, would be heard.
Meanwhile, Pence could easily revive Bush-era foreign policy prerogatives, pushing the US military into more global conflicts and further inflating the Pentagon’s budget. The more hawkish Republicans, eager for new confrontations abroad, will have much more freedom in Pence’s orbit. It’s not hard to imagine how the existing conflict with Russia over Ukraine, or a potential conflict with China, would escalate to more dangerous extremes.
Democrats should ultimately hope that Trump, not Pence, claims the Republican nomination in 2024 because Trump is more beatable. Like Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who more effectively apes Trumpism — should also be feared, as he would lead a strong race and likely attempt to implement at least as destructive GOP policies if elected. At the end of the day, Trump is probably the general election opponent the Democrats want. Even with lackluster support for Biden, Trump is polarizing enough to attract a huge Democratic turnout. Its vulnerabilities are obvious. If Mike Pence is campaigning against Biden, he won’t blunder, slander his allies, or take to social media to spread nonsense. He will not be involved in any sex scandal. He could be what every Republican hopes for: a chance for a quick return to power.