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GOP Debate: The Dark Horse
Former VP Mike Pence might be the most hated politician in the country among the MAGA right, but that doesn't mean the ingredients aren't there for a broad coalition capable of carrying the day.
This is my fourth in a series of Daily Saucer takes on the current crop of GOP candidates leading up to tonight’s presidential debate.
In the first debate, Mike Pence had the most underrated performance in debate history. He had more talking time than any other candidate, he created tremendous soundbites and sounded utterly presidential, and he managed to gain the approval for his January 6th decisions, for which MAGA despises him, from all but one of the candidates on stage.
A candidate able to have that kind of night, in any other election, would be running away with the polls. But Pence only received the most modest of bumps compared to other candidates who saw improved support after the debate.
Why? Because Pence is the candidate nobody wants but could very well be the one we need.
I’ve argued before that January 6th is the darkest day in the history of the Republican Party. If America is going to have a credible conservative party, the GOP must reckon with what happened on that day. For better or worse, that kind of reckoning is exactly what Mike Pence is building his campaign on.
Pence has not shied away from defending his actions on January 6th. All across the country, he has defended himself against calls of treason and has laid out unflinchingly what his responsibilities were under the Constitution.
As the issue of January 6th and Trump’s false claims of fraud continue to be front and center in our public dialogue, Pence gets further positioned to be the counterpoint to Trump’s “siren song.” While an admittedly imperfect vessel, Pence can nevertheless embody a rebuke of what happened on January 6th, a rebuilt bridge to the GOP’s roots in Reagan, Coolidge, and Lincoln, and a repudiation of the ugly, back-biting, know-nothing era that Trump has plunged us into.
And Pence could do all of this while bringing voters into his coalition who liked the Trump-Pence administration but have grown tired of Trump’s antics. Under the right circumstances, Pence could plausibly become positioned to build the broadest coalition possible of the present Republican contenders.
But here’s the rub. It’s true that Pence has done a tremendous job defending his actions on January 6th and has shown his backbone by standing up to a populist agenda “stitched together by personal grievances and performative outrage.” But there are still problems to overcome.
Pence is championing Reaganism and attacking populism quite late in the game. And he’s failing to reckon with the fact that he offered support and legitimacy to the faction whose ideals he claims are “unbridgeable” with his own.
There are many, today, who openly admire Pence’s fortitude on January 6th and the way he is conducting his presidential campaign. But without Pence crafting a story that explains his journey, his whole campaign has the whiff of reinvention.
Pence cannot run as the counter-populist while saying he’s still proud of everything he did and said as part of the most populist administration America’s ever had.
If he’s going to say, “That’s who I was yesterday, this is who I am today,” he needs to explain his journey from yesterday to today. He has to differentiate between what he’s still proud of doing and what he regrets.
Pence could present himself as a tragic figure, a man who put himself through the hell of working with Trump because he felt called by God to be the sane voice at the table. He could separate the successes and failures of the Trump-Pence administration, crediting the failures to Trump’s self-sabotage and crediting success to his own calm and steady professionalism. And, he could offer the most credible warning that people like him will not be there to steer the ship in better directions in a second Trump administration.
Pence has been inching in this direction. Perhaps at tonight’s debate, he’ll take a full step in legitimately putting daylight between himself and his former boss. Only then will his coalition potential begin to show itself.
The Daily Saucer is our place for freelance contributors and editorial staff to offer short takes on the news cycle, quick observations on the issues, and brief thoughts on broader topics. The views offered in this space reflect only the personal views of the authors.