You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Analysis: A Mike Pence Presidency Is No Longer Just Dinner Party Chatter in DC — Is He Up to the Job?

Newsweek logo Newsweek 10/12/2019 Bill Powell
Mike Pence wearing a suit and tie: Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the creation of a new branch of the military, Space Force, at the Pentagon on August 9, 2018. © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Vice President Mike Pence speaks about the creation of a new branch of the military, Space Force, at the Pentagon on August 9, 2018.

As House Democrats ponder the politics of impeaching Donald J. Trump, they are weighing the possible outcomes. An impeachment inquiry could weaken the president before next year's election and give the White House back to the Democrats, or it could backfire, the way the GOP's effort to oust Bill Clinton did in 1998. But there's a third option: impeachment could succeed. As a senior staffer on the House Judiciary Committee framed the dilemma, "What if we're left with President Pence?"

That scenario has seemed far-fetched — until this week. At the moment there don't seem to be enough GOP senators who would vote to convict Trump if the Democratic-controlled House passes articles of impeachment against him. But the president hasn't been able to quash "Ukraine-gate," the scandal that erupted after a White House whistleblower reported that Trump pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Releasing the transcript of the call, which the White House apparently believed was exculpatory, only intensified the pressure. A recent Fox News poll showed a majority — 51 percent — now want Trump impeached and removed from office. That was the first major poll showing a majority in favor of Trump's ouster.

But it's a separate, unrelated presidential phone call that's making Trump more vulnerable — and a Pence presidency less unlikely.

Trump's October 6 announcement, after a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that the administration would remove U.S. troops from northeast Syria, enabling Turkey to attack Syrian Kurds, infuriated Republican senators. Ankara believes the Kurds in Syria aid a separatist group within Turkey, but Kurdish fighters have been crucial U.S. allies in the defeat of the Islamic State group. Like most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, GOP leaders saw Trump's pullout as an indefensible abandonment of a stalwart American ally — and a reckless move that played into the hands of ISIS, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Not a single Republican senator voiced support of the troop withdrawal. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the move publicly, as did Senator Lindsey Graham, previously a no-daylight-between-us Trump partisan.

In their best-case scenario, some Democrats hope the evolving Ukraine scandal takes down both Trump and his vice president. Pence has been tainted by the Ukraine scandal because the president dispatched him to Poland in September to further press Zelensky to curb corruption, though not specifically to discuss the Bidens. On October 9, in response to a reporter's questions, Pence would not say whether he was aware of Trump's eagerness to get dirt on Biden. Should Pence somehow fall too, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would become president.

That, for now anyway, seems like a fantasy. Far more likely: the Senate will vote on whether to oust Trump. The votes for removal aren't there today. But Republican senators' unease about the president is palpable; their increasing discomfort with the erratic administration is why "President Pence" is not unthinkable.

So let's think about it.

After the near-constant chaos of the Trump era, a Pence presidency would bring a return to political normality. It would seem, in comparison to Trump, boring — and many Americans might welcome that. There would be no tweet storms. He'd staff his White House and cabinet with old friends and advisers from his days as governor of Indiana and as a congressional representative, several of whom have played roles in the Trump administration already: Marc Short, for example, was White House director for legislative affairs before becoming Pence's chief of staff, and Seema Verma, Pence's chief health care policy adviser, runs the Medicare and Medicaid programs. His closest political adviser would be his wife of 34 years, Karen Pence. And he would run, associates say, a far more disciplined White House than its current occupant.

To most Republicans, Pence is a solid, button-downed conservative, known mostly for his evangelical Christianity and strong pro-life views. His support for traditional marriage, rooted in his religion, was the source of what became the defining political controversy of his time as Indiana governor — one that could haunt him should he be in the position of running for the White House.

UP NEXT
UP NEXT
Should he assume the presidency sometime next year, Pence friends say, he would run to win the presidency on his own in 2020. In the runup to 2016, he considered a Presidential run, finally deciding to seek re-election as Governor because he saw no plausible lane to the White House. There were simply too many other governors in the race, including two from the Midwest, Wisconsin's Scott Walker and Ohio's John Kasich. As the incumbent next year, he would be the front runner, and he would present himself as a stable grown-up and a reliable conservative. But Pence's drama-free public persona can be deceptive. In the words of his biographer, political reporter Tom LoBianco, "boring is his camouflage."

Pence, 60, was born into a large, middle-class Roman Catholic family — the third of six children — in Columbus, Indiana. Politics was not a prominent topic around the family dinner table, and Pence has said that his earliest leanings were Democratic. He admired John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

He gravitated to public speaking in high school, foreshadowing a career as a radio broadcaster, and was elected class president. At Hanover College, a small liberal arts college in southern Indiana, he found his faith. He fell in with a small Christian group called the Vespers, a mix of Catholics and evangelicals, led by what biographer LoBianco describes as a charismatic senior, John Gable. He was an evangelical Christian, "and he had taken an interest in me, and he was talking with me about faith," Pence recalled in a later interview. "And I got to the point where I said, John, I've decided to go ahead and become a Christian." At a Christian music festival in April of 1978, "I gave my life, made a personal decision to trust Jesus Christ as my Savior."

Jimmy Carter, a born again Christian, won the presidency as a Democrat in 1976, but the evangelical movement was shifting. Led by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other televangelists, they were becoming more overtly political, and more conservative. Pence, who had voted for Carter, was disappointed by him. But he was later impressed by what he saw as "the common sense conservatism of Ronald Reagan." Pence voted for Reagan in 1980 and has been a Republican ever since.

After law school, Pence ran for Congress and lost in both 1988 and 1990, then hosted a radio talk show that was heard throughout the state, and which eventually became a weekly television show as well. He has never been rich, but his media career and Karen's job as a teacher at a Christian school gave them a financially stable, upper-middle-class lifestyle, and the media exposure raised his profile in Indiana.

Pence ran again for Congress in 2000 — this time successfully. Once there, he aligned himself with the Tea Party, the most conservative wing of the House Republican caucus. (They drove more moderate members, such as then Republican House leader John Boehner, nuts.) Amidst the financial crisis of 2008, Pence and the other tea partiers initially voted against an economic bailout bill crafted by George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2008. Their "no" votes caused the bill to fail and the stock market to crater. Paulson had to beg Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Democratic votes.

Pence's time in Congress nonetheless showed he had some political skills. Despite his affiliation with the Tea Party, he managed to build strong relations with more establishment Republican members including Boehner. Even after he ran against Boehner to lead the House GOP caucus in 2006, he fell back into line after losing the vote badly. Boehner didn't take it personally. He liked Pence, installed him as Republican Conference Chair — the third ranking leadership post — and used him to keep abreast of what the more conservative members were thinking.

Back home, Pence's image was as a "teavangelical," wearing his religion on his sleeve and usually voting with the conservatives. As a radio broadcaster he had spoken out against women and gays serving in the military. ("Homosexuality is incompatible with military services because the presence of homosexuals in the ranks weakens unit cohesion," he said at one point.)

But looking to play a bigger role, he began to temper that image. Popular GOP Governor Mitch Daniels was term limited out of office in 2012, and Pence wanted the job. Daniels had governed as a competent, right-of-center technocrat and Pence campaigned in Daniels' image, stressing jobs, school reform and worker retraining, rarely emphasizing social issues such as his opposition to abortion. The "teavangelical," LoBianco says, "went into hiding," replaced by the technocrat. Pence won the race narrowly.

Pence and his supporters will argue that his time as Indiana's governor demonstrates that he's a capable chief executive fit for the White House. The record shows, though, that he was more effective as a congressman — eventually. Though Republicans controlled both Houses of the Indiana legislature, he almost botched a signature tax cut bill by not riding herd on members whose votes he needed. His first chief of staff, an old evangelical friend named Bill Smith, was ineffective. And there were moments when the influence of his wife caught people off guard. According to LoBianco's biography, Pence, who considers himself a fiscal conservative, caught his fellow Republicans off guard by proposing a fairly expensive preschool program. "Where did this come from?" one lawmaker asked him. "Well you know, Karen's interested in this," Pence replied. "She was a school teacher, you know."

But it was in his third year as governor that the rest of the country found out who Mike Pence was. In the Indianapolis state house, a small group of Christian conservative lawmakers drew up legislation called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Among other things, it allowed Indiana businesses to refuse to participate in same sex weddings on religious grounds. Pence, according to LoBianco and other state house reporters in Indiana at the time, say the RFRA legislation was never a point of emphasis for Pence. He had paid little attention to the bill as it was being drawn up and debated. And when he signed it, it was in the privacy of his office, with only three Christian activists in attendance. "This bill," Pence said at the time, "is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination I would have vetoed it."

Critics did believe it was discriminatory, and at a time when gay marriage was broadly becoming accepted across the country, the legislation seemed at the very least tone deaf. The corporate community in Indiana was furious. Major companies like Salesforce and Apple said they would have trouble doing business in the state. The NCAA was about to host the Final Four in Indianapolis and began to feel pressure to move it elsewhere. What Pence would view as harmless legislation — who opposes religious freedom? — blew up in his face.

His handling of the crisis is instructive. During a two-hour emergency meeting with about a dozen members of his staff — including pollster and message-shaper Kellyanne Conway, who would go on to work for Trump — Pence berated them for letting him get into this mess. Pence had been invited to go on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos to talk about the issue, and his staff was divided. People in both camps thought he agreed with them when the meeting ended. "He has the ability a lot of politicians have to make people think he's agreeing with them when he's not," says a former close Pence aide in Indiana. "It's just that this was a really bad time to do that. It showed how on edge he was, that he couldn't communicate with his closest advisers just what the hell he was going to do, and why. The pressure got to him."

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, wave during a Trump campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 10, 2019. © Leah Millis Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, wave during a Trump campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 10, 2019. Pence had said he would not sign a fix for the legislation to make clear it would not be discriminatory against the LGBTQ community — and yet in the end, he did. As recounted in LoBianco's book, "Piety and Power," while considering a 2016 run for the White House, Pence had courted GOP mega-donor Paul Singer. Singer, who has a son who had come out, was a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights. Sign the fix, he advised Pence.

The resolution of the RFRA debacle, Pence's friends believe, showed that he is not the fire breathing Christian "theocrat," as LoBianco puts it, that his critics allege. It shows instead that he's a deeply ambitious — and realistic — politician. "There's a pragmatic streak there that any good politician has to have," his predecessor Mitch Daniels has said.

Pence as President would the anti-Trump in any number of ways. Unlike the current president, he has longstanding ties to Republicans in both houses of Congress. He and his staff played a key role for the White House working with then Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell to get Trump's tax cut passed.

Pence has a cadre of advisers from his House days who would assume key roles in the White House, including current chief of staff Marc Short. The only Trump person likely to stay on, former Pence aides say, is Kellyanne Conway, who has known and worked with the vice president for years. Key Trump players, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — who Pence is friendly with — would likely go. And that includes Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka. Pence's current National Security Adviser, Lt. General Keith Kellogg, would likely occupy the same position for a President Pence. There would likely be few holdovers from Trump's cabinet.

Pence's Washington experience, his connections on the Hill and his apparent political and personal self-control do not mean a Pence presidency would be devoid of controversy or partisanship. He is by all accounts a hardliner on one of the most bitterly divisive of social issues: abortion. Pro choice Democrats would have to worry just as much — if not more — about Pence appointing Supreme Court justices with Roe V. Wade on the line. Pro life judges are "certain" to be appointed to the courts under a Pence administration, says a former member of his staff in Indianapolis.

On other key issues like the economy, foreign affairs and immigration, he would likely break with Trump in several key areas. He's a standard issue, low tax, deregulation Republican, as Trump is. But as a former tea partier, he is said by friends to be deeply dismayed by the current fiscal profligacy under Trump and a Democratic Congress. Should he be elected president he'd "want to get a grip on the budget," says Dan McIntosh, former Indiana Congressman and now the president at the Club for Growth in Washington.

President Pence will infuriate the Trump base if he comes across as squishy on the Wall and on illegal immigration more broadly, but that's certainly where he was ideologically when he was in Congress. Speaking to an opponent of reform back in Indiana, he said a hard line on immigration would do little to prevent drugs and drug dealers from crossing the border but it would keep "the gardeners" out. His support for immigration is also rooted, his friends say, in his religious faith. Pence was an active member of the group trying to cobble together comprehensive immigration reform. He was aligned with Bush, Senator John McCain and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in seeking a deal, and his current chief of staff was a key aide in the two-year push for reform. But the process showed Pence how entrenched the anti-immigration hardliners in the party are. He gave up his efforts to get a deal in the House and has steered clear of the issue ever since. Should he be elected in 2020, though, it's plausible he might seek to do a deal with Democrats.

His foreign policy would break with Trump's as well, associates say — with one key exception. Unlike Trump, Pence is no isolationist. He spent eight years on the House Foreign Relations Committee, and "would not sign on to Trump's recent UN speech," says biographer LoBianco, which was basically a call for the U.S. to butt out of everyone else's affairs if they do not directly impact U.S. interests.

He values U.S. alliances, seeing them as force multipliers, not rips-offs by countries unwilling to defend themselves. He'd be much more skeptical about the possibility of doing a deal with North Korea's Kim Jong Un and is, associates say, more wary of Putin than Trump is. "He's a solid establishment Republican when it comes to foreign policy," says former Missouri Senator Jim Talent. A former staff member on the House Foreign Relations Committee says Pence is willing to use force, but cautiously: "He's learned the lessons of Iraq." On foreign affairs, Pence's views "are probably somewhere between George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush," says this source.

There will be one big exception to his break from Trump's foreign policy: relations with China. Pence, say associates, is likely to continue Trump's tough line on trade, something that separates him from the corporate wing of the GOP Congressional caucus who, until Trump got elected, were all free traders.

Slideshow by photo services

It was a China-related speech one year ago, in fact, in which Pence made his most significant mark on foreign policy as vice president. It was by far the most hawkish statement by a US administration regarding China since the restoration of relations between the two countries. Indeed, it was more hawkish than Trump. Not only did Pence upbraid Beijing on trade, but on its military activity in the South China Sea, and the oppression of the country's Muslim population (something Trump never talks about). Beijing will get no relief from a Pence administration.

Democrats believe Pence would be beatable, but they wouldn't mind if he gets tarred a bit more by the unfolding Ukraine saga. In a recent piece headlined "Pence played role without knowing it," the Washington Post reported that Trump had ordered Pence to push Ukraine to deal with corruption, but never specifically about the Bidens. Keith Kellogg, the vice president's national security adviser, was one of those listening to Trump's July call with the Ukrainian president.

The episode made Pence look out of the loop and a bit clueless, and he awkwardly refused to confirm or deny to reporters recently whether he knew of Trump's Biden scheme. But his staffers considered the Washington Post story a "win," and unless new, more damaging information comes out, Pence will likely survive. If Trump goes down next year, he will be president.

When, in July of 2016, Pence got word that Trump was going to call in 30 minutes to let him know about his decision on the vice presidency, he was in his office with his wife and three senior members of his staff, devout evangelicals all. He asked them to join hands and pray together. A half-hour later, his prayers were answered. Mike Pence had long wanted to be president. Now he had the chance to be a heartbeat away. Should the Senate hold a vote on Trump's fate, will Pence, his wife, Karen, and their top aides once again gather in prayer?

And if so, what will they be praying for?

Sign up to our newsletter and get Newsweek stories delivered to your e-mail

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Newsweek

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon