Vice President Mike Pence has always taken the so-called “long view” when it comes to his career. After losing two congressional races in the late 1980s, he settled into a think tank and broadcasting career, then went to Congress in 2001.
In 2011, he mulled a presidential bid, then focused on becoming Indiana’s 50th governor. There was the potential for a 2016 White House campaign. Some believe that his signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act knocked him out, but he had only a slender route to the nomination. The clearer path was to get on the ticket, and from May through July 2016, he executed a savvy strategy, wooing Donald Trump when dozens of other Republicans took a pass. When the veep nomination flickered on July 14, he boarded a charter jet and retrieved the prize.
When mainstream Republicans questioned the Trump credentials, Pence exhorted them to come home, playing a significant role in notching one of the biggest upsets in U.S. presidential history.
On Jan. 20, he became Vice President Pence.
We have been carefully monitoring Pence’s standing in the Trump White House over the past 26 days. It’s been a fascinating exercise, since President Trump has a long history of playing top aides and associates off against each other. Trump Inc. is a clan enterprise, not a Fortune 500 company. The sons, daughters and in-laws wield the clout, not a board of directors. So now is the White House. Those outside the family need that extra savvy, the correct width of necktie, the right colored suit, and an enhanced level of loyalty. If you can’t pass that muster, you’re fired. Pence could try to roll back federal LGBT protections, but daughter Ivanka crimped that.
Trump probably can’t fire a vice president, but then again we hadn’t fathomed Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigning a year ago after her own fallout with Gov. Pence.
At this writing, Vice President Pence is ensconced in the Trump Twilight Zone. The brutal realities of being in this warren became apparent over the weekend when the press pried out an unruly fact, that the national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to Pence. He had been talking to the Russian ambassador about rolling back Obama-era sanctions. The vice president went on Face the Nation and perpetrated a lie about Flynn’s discussions. Pence was out of the loop for 15 days. His press guy, Marc Lotter, acknowledged Pence had “incomplete information.”
Top Pence aides tell the national media he felt “blindsided” and “frustrated.”
Since then, it’s gotten even more peculiar. There’s that 2015 photo of Flynn dining with President Putin, a year before the Kremlin intervened in the U.S. presidential race. There are now CNN and New York Times reports that the Trump campaign was in consistent contact with the Kremlin, which should outrage every American patriot. It puts a whole new light on Trump’s October 2016 tweet: “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.”
Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and former aide to Vice President Quayle, played the new parlor game. Is Pence already toast in Trump World? A White House source described Pence in the wake of the Flynn fiasco as “a very forgiving man.” In Trump World, that is probably not an asset. He’s a political Bambi.
“Does this episode weaken Pence?” Kristol asked. “That’s what everybody is trying to figure out. Pence is trying to play a long game, keeping his head down and keeping his powder dry, assuming some of the more flamboyant types will blow up or blow out and he will be there as a trusted counselor a year or so from now. The long game can mislead you. If you end up keeping your powder dry and never using it, you end up being just another guy in the White House.”
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough observed Thursday morning, “I can tell you every senator and congressman on Capitol Hill would rather have Mike Pence as president than Donald Trump.” The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger writes, “Unless Team Trump gets back to the basics of the 2016 election, 1974 could return … A president’s blood is in the water and another White House staff can only look out the windows as the sharks arrive.”
The challenge for Vice President Pence today is this is not a George Bush White House. The Trump outfit is a mix of Network, Mad Max, Alice in Wonderland and The Twilight Zone. It’s like playing chess on mushrooms. There’s no precedent, no logical org chart. This is President Wingin’ It.
In the Pence long, long, long game — hanging in there, taking the insults and barbs, deflecting the lies, keeping his head out of the line of circular fire — could have the ultimate historical payoff. Will the Trump White House become so scandal-ridden that if Democrats take control of Congress in 2018, the impeachment proceedings go on the fast track? Will Trump grow tired of an inert Congress, his family accessory lines getting kicked out of loser chains like Sears and Kmart, and say in 2018, “I’m outta here”?
In that long game, the end result is President Pence. Just keep your head down, Mike.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.