INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence returns to Indianapolis on April 26 to tout President Trump and the Republican tax reforms. But this visit comes as his boss heads into what will likely be one of the most turbulent periods of his life.
President Trump appears to be heading into the homestretch of Robert Mueller’s Russian collusion probe, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is investigating payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and another Playmate from his attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, whose office was recently raided by the FBI. Investigators have recovered a trove of recorded conversations that seem to involve the President’s closest friends and advisers, prompting Trump to insist that “client/attorney privilege is dead.” And on top of all that drama, Trump is also poised to meet with North Korean despot Kim Jong Un in a summit with truly scary nuclear ramifications.
Folks, this is epic stuff.
An additional subplot arose over the weekend: For the first time in their fascinating relationship, Pence found himself sideways with his boss, who has a penchant for firing subordinates via Twitter. Pence attempted to hire Jon Lerner as his national security adviser. Lerner had planned to split his portfolio with United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, and the arrangement, according to Axios, left Trump “hopping mad.” West Wing operators called the situation a “damn mess.”
Trump can’t fire Pence like he does with his cabinet. Up to this point, Pence had been so deferential to Trump that descriptions of their relationship range from “loyal” to “sycophant” to “bootlicker.”
On Wednesday, the Trump/Pence relationship was described in a new way by Axios: “What was most surprising … is how rarely the two men betray any friction. In fact, no one inside the White House has navigated Trump and the watch-your-back internal dynamic more adeptly than Pence, administration officials tell us. Pence’s unifying role has positioned him perfectly for all scenarios — solid in his standing as VP, and ready to lead if Trump were to be impeached or decide one term is enough.”
While popular with Hoosier Republicans, Trump is on thin ice nationally, with his Real Clear Politics polling composite standing at an anemic 41.9 percent. Paul Brandus, writing for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, points out that this puts Trump in the company of other politically weak modern presidents: Lyndon Johnson in 1968, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. None of them served a second full term. Trump is the fifth president to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote. Presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, our boy Benjamin Harrison and George W. Bush were the others, and only Bush served a second term.
Axios describes the Pence modus operandi as thus: “He rarely offends or challenges Trump — and never in public or in front of others. In TV interviews, he treats the boss with deference that makes many cringe, but delights the Big Man. He has assembled his own team, loyal to him, and mostly savvy enough to keep their heads down and mouths shut. Pence is the happy, on-message Christian warrior. Since the campaign, Pence has played on his ‘aw shucks’ second-fiddle role, even joking about how much poorer he is than Trump. He told members at a Republican retreat that he comes from ‘the Joseph A. Bank wing of the West Wing.’ Trump loves that.”
The Trump/Pence union has been called the modern political “Odd Couple.” Some close to Pence fretted back in 2016 that this was a virtual “deal with the devil,” matching the profane, vulgar billionaire (as once described by Rep. Todd Rokita) with the devoutly religious, distinctly middle-class Pence. We all know that Gov. Pence’s reelection bid was on thin ice here in Indiana and the Trump lifeline was perhaps his best chance to get, in a twisted and tormented way, to the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address he covets.
If Karen Pence was offended by the emergence of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in October 2016, one can only imagine what the Second Couple talks about at the end of a long day, with Trump’s past cavorting with porn stars and Playmates. Republican voters and evangelicals don’t seem to mind.
And the whole administration could find itself in a blender once Robert Mueller issues what will likely be the report of the 21st century.
So Pence returns to Indiana to preach tax cuts to the faithful next week. He will receive a warm welcome, if not hero’s. President Trump’s standing among Hoosier Republicans is extremely strong, though recent polls suggesting he will have a tough time carrying Indiana in 2020. An early demise of his presidency would be an anathema to Trump Republicans across Red State America. But the consolation for Hoosier Republicans is an early Trump exit would allow Pence to join the Indiana presidential pantheon of Lincoln and the Harrisons.
Pence has steered through the Trumpian figure eight demolition derby with the political attributes we here know so well: Tight talking points, maximum loyalty, and an ability (with RFRA as a notable exception) to execute policy and game plans with utter efficiency.
President Trump faces the gauntlet. In this specter, Pence is riding a rocket into history … one way or another.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.