Vice President Mike Pence is nothing if not loyal.
Pence has been scrupulously loyal to his wife of 32 years, Karen Pence, and has earned a reputation as a politician who maintains fealty to his principles. Most notably, Pence, who describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," has faithfully declined to criticize or second-guess his ticket-topper, President Trump, whose tenure as candidate and president has been marked by a certain wobbliness in all three categories: Christian, conservative, Republican.
Pence, a long-time Russia hawk, has loyally worked his way into possible legal jeopardy for either being clueless or mendacious when it comes to communications between Trump's team and apparently eager-to-help Kremlin-linked figures, and then to Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, who was heading that investigation. If you doubt that Pence is a loyal soldier for Trump, imagine the steely self-sacrifice the consummate family-values standard bearer must have endured to stay silent, then defend Trump, after his hot-mic comments about forcibly fondling and attempting to seduce married women made their way to every TV set in the nation last October.
Pence has stayed silent as other members of Trump's administration have publicly contradicted the president, recused themselves from investigations they could theoretically quash, criticized Trump's equivocal remarks on white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville, or suggested he is divisive and uninspiring.
But now it's time for Pence to go rogue, too.
What would going rogue look like for Pence? It could start small, with the vice president disagreeing with Trump on cable TV — Fox News or, if he wants to tweak Trump, CNN — when Trump strays from Reagan-Republican orthodoxy, in the way only Pence can: shaking his head, eyes crinkling, the 58-year-old gray-haired Father Knows Best figure calmly but firmly correcting the towheaded, unruly, 71-year-old president. "As the president knows, Republicans support tax cuts for everyone, even the wealthy," he might say.
Next, Pence could ramp up his Republican political activity, speaking to Chamber of Commerce groups and at state GOP dinners, attending big political conferences, and meeting with political donors of his own volition. He could have ostentatious daily lunch meetings with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and other traditional Republicans in positions of power, most of whom Trump has a strained relationship with already.
Pence already launched his own PAC, Great America — an unprecedented step for a vice president. He should raise as much cash as possible for it, filling his coffers as a way of declaring independence from a president who values money as power and power as paramount. Then he can start making bolder moves to show that there is a parallel power structure in the White House, a Republican one, ready and waiting. Pence is revamping his media team — he could hire a well-known, TV-friendly establishment conservative as press secretary and hold alternate daily press briefings, promising to ditch the "alternative facts" and tell America what's really going on in the executive branch. The news media would televise that.
The advantage of the vice presidency is it has no specific duties — it's a full-time understudy role for a part most vice presidents will never fill — so Pence has time on his hands to make of his rogue office what he wants. Would Trump be angry? You betcha.
But going rogue wouldn't risk Pence's job. Unlike Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, James Mattis, and other members of the Trump administration, Pence can't be fired. The vice president doesn't serve at the pleasure of the president — he is elected by the Electoral College, just like the president, and only Congress can remove him through impeachment. As long as at least one house of Congress is in GOP hands, there's almost no chance that Pence will be impeached.
Pence, at 58, is young in politician years, and he's obviously ambitious. He has his own future to think about. Other than his loyal nature, Pence has presumably stuck with Trump for the same reason that Ryan and McConnell have: Trump signs the laws, sends over conservative judicial nominees for confirmation, and is more popular than them among the kind of Republicans who vote in primaries and the types of conservatives who — like Pence 20 years ago — have talk radio shows.
Now that Trump is toying with keeping the DREAMers, struggling to build his Mexico border wall, and cutting deals with his friends Chuck and Nancy, the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House, the patience of Trump's base seems to be wearing thin. The conservative judges will keep coming, but is that enough? Pence would send over jurists at least as conservative. When even Ann Coulter — author of In Trump We Trust — is cool with President Pence, it's hard to see the downside in putting some distance between himself and the already historically unpopular president.
Trump is maybe, possibly, finally making a pivot toward political independence. If he can actually manage the highwire act of taking some of the more popular Democratic issues, combining those with just enough fuel for his personal base of support, while keeping the parts of the Republican platform with broad popular support — for example, tax cuts, but not for the rich, plus big public infrastructure projects in the upper Midwest — it would upend America's political duopoly, just like Stephen Bannon wanted. That would probably be bad for Democrats, but it would certainly be bad for Republicans — and especially for loyal Republicans like Pence.
If Trump succeeds, why would the newly scrambled electorate want someone like Pence in 2024? If Trump fails, Pence would be the Republican ready to pick up the pieces and restore the party's footing. Pence — the Christian, conservative, Republican — is probably not much of a gambler. But even a loyal partner needs to know when to fold 'em.