When President Trump was elected, a lot of liberals confidently predicted that he wouldn't last six months. Being sensible and sober, I thought that was nothing more than wishful thinking. But now? It doesn't seem so implausible.
Even with the Department of Justice's appointment Wednesday of a special prosecutor, Trump's early departure — by impeachment, resignation, or the invocation of the 25th Amendment — is a not sure thing, or even a likelihood. I suspect we're still a few major revelations away from that happening, even if cracks in his Republican support are beginning to appear. The most probable outcome is that this mad circus continues at least until 2020. But as long as we're contemplating that most remarkable of eventualities, it's worth considering: What would a Mike Pence presidency be like?
To figure that out, we'd first have to understand the context in which the vice president would take office. Trump would just have left or been removed, in what would by definition be the greatest political crisis either party had faced in over four decades. Every Republican would be trying to claim that they never really trusted Trump in the first place, to try to make their hands seem as clean as possible.
But no one's hands would be dirtier than Pence's. Even if he didn't offer Trump the kind of preemptive pardon that Gerald Ford gave Richard Nixon, he would forever be the guy who became president because: 1) He thought that Donald Trump was such a terrific candidate that he wanted to join his ticket, and 2) Pence's judgment proved colossally wrong, and Trump was as much of a disaster as his opponents predicted he would be. Democrats would never stop quoting Pence's effusive praise of Trump (particularly his weird obsession with the breadth of Trump's shoulders).
So while it's theoretically possible that the nation would breathe a sigh of relief and welcome Pence's ascendance as a much-needed return to reasonable leadership, chances are he'd come in with low popularity, the stench of Trump hanging upon him. And he doesn't have a well of bipartisan good will to draw on. Ford's troubles were partially mitigated by the fact that he was a mild-mannered, moderate Republican whom few people genuinely disliked, but in contrast, Pence is a conservative ideologue unlikely to win the support of any Democrats.
Nevertheless, whatever the polls say, Pence would immediately change the focus of the administration. While Trump doesn't have much of a personal ideological agenda, Pence would work intently on enacting hard-right social conservatism in every way possible. Don't get me wrong: Pence loves tax cuts and deregulation like any Republican. But his career has been marked above all by the culture war, his efforts to fight the acceptance of gay Americans, roll back reproductive rights, and create special privileges for Christians.
How much of that he'd be able to pass into law is hard to say. But on legislation, he'd certainly be more likely to get things done than Trump — having served in Congress for 12 years he knows how it works, and he wouldn't be the kind of erratic, disruptive force Trump has been to GOP legislative efforts. That wouldn't necessarily make the ambitious items on the Republican agenda, like repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform, much easier. But it would likely produce progress on smaller bills.
And while nobody ever accused Mike Pence of being a genius, it's safe to say that his White House wouldn't be the kind of Thunderdome of infighting, backstabbing, and press leaks that Trump's is. He'd probably replace many of Trump's cadre of revolutionaries and nincompoops with standard-issue operatives and policy wonks, the kind you'd find in any Republican administration (many of whom have refused to work for Trump). Which means the entire government would start working better — but whether you think that's a good thing depends on your political perspective.
Despite that, a Pence administration would find itself hobbled politically. If the 2018 midterm elections hadn't already taken place by the time he took the oath of office, they'd be poised to be not just a wave but a tsunami, with every Republican member of Congress threatened by their connection to the disgraced Trump. A Democratic takeover of the House would be a near-certainty, and once they had control, they'd have subpoena power. The investigations would never stop, and would likely produce more scandals and endless headaches for Pence. Who knows, they might even find that he was more involved with the Russia matter than we've been led to believe.
All of which would culminate in the 2020 election, in which Pence, carrying the legacy of his relationship with Trump around like a malignant tumor, would face the voters.
When Pence agreed to become Trump's running mate, he took a calculated risk. On one hand, he'd become the second most prominent Republican in America, well positioned for a future run for the White House whether the ticket won or lost. On the other hand, he'd be attaching himself to Donald Trump. It's possible that both the best-case and worst-case scenarios stemming from that decision could come to pass: Pence becomes president (at least for a while), but is forever marked by the Trump stain. You can't say he wouldn't deserve it.