Former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence presented contrasting-yet-overlapping visions for the future of the Republican party in a pair of speeches delivered Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Trump, speaking at the America First Policy Institute Summit, served up red meat for his base, pushing an ambitious — some might say draconian — law and order agenda. Policy proposals included executing drug dealers, moving the homeless to federally funded encampments on the outskirts of major cities, and deploying National Guard units to Chicago neighborhoods with high crime rates. He also veered off script to discuss transgender athletes, the planned obsolescence of windshield wiper blades, his own "persecution," and his baseless claim that he was the true winner of the 2020 election.
Pence, delivering to Young America's Foundation Student Conference a speech originally intended for the Heritage Foundation, stayed on-topic as he outlined his new "Freedom Agenda." Pillars included state-level abortion bans, free-market healthcare reform, slashing taxes and regulations, and supporting Ukraine.
Which way, American conservative?
Amber Athey of The Spectator World praised Trump's focus on law and order, suggesting that it could be his "golden ticket to the White House in 2024" the way immigration was in 2016. Trump wrapped up his speech with the 60s soul hit "Hold On, I'm Comin'," which Athey suggested might be "a promise to the many Americans struggling with inflation, high gas prices, crime, a porous southern border, and a looming recession." Trump appeared to hit all the right notes for a 2024 comeback.
For others on the right, Trump's obsession with the 2020 election and with his own persecution are inherently disqualifying. "The choice should be clear," Charles Hilu wrote in National Review. Conservatives "can either emulate [the] lies and narcissism that poorly represented the conservative movement's ideology and grand history" — that'd be Trump — "or they can embrace a message of articulating hopeful policy to help Americans for the future" by siding with Pence.
At ABC News, Rick Klein saw the two speeches as different aspects of an "emerging GOP agenda" rather than as two separate and competing visions. This agenda is "not a timid one" and appears to be "relatively uncontroversial" among "national GOP figures," he wrote. Pence expressed a similar idea when he claimed that he and Trump disagree on "focus" but not on "issues."
Looking forward, looking back
Pence repeatedly emphasized the need for conservatives to "focus on the future" while avoiding "the temptation to look back." The Washington Post's columnist Dana Milbank found this ironic. "[A]fter calling for a forward-looking vision, [Pence] gave a speech looking backward to the Trump administration," he wrote. In The New York Times, Michael Bender noted Pence's numerous references to the achievements of the "Trump-Pence administration." Trump, on the other hand, "never mentioned Pence, or even acknowledged him," Joan Walsh observed in The Nation.
Arguably, Pence was looking even further backward. In a 2019 column for The Week, Matthew Walther described Pence as "a fossil of the conservative movement as it existed before Trump." Aside from a few references to critical race theory and gender in women's sports, Pence's speech could have been delivered in 2012.
Trump looked backward in his own way. NPR's Barbara Sprunt highlighted the former president's reference to "blood, death, and suffering" in America's streets, noting echoes of the "American carnage" he described in his 2017 inaugural address.
The energy in the room
The consensus appears to be that Trump's high-energy style overshadowed the more mild-mannered Pence. Bender contrasted the "tepid applause" Pence received with the "numerous standing ovations" Trump drew from his much larger crowd.
Walsh called Pence "pathetic" and wrote that he was "delusional if he thinks he has a future in GOP presidential politics." Pence, she noted, is polling at just 6 percent for a 2024 bid, while Trump dominates with 49 percent. Milbank described Pence's speech as a feeble attempt "to differentiate himself from his former boss and tormentor — while simultaneously praising" him. "The result," Milbank wrote, "is a profile in timidity."
Trump, Athey argued, seemed "sleepy" at first but "began to shine" 20 minutes in as he deviated from the teleprompter, displaying a "vigor" that President Biden lacks. Sprunt had the opposite impression, writing that, when Trump went off-script, his speech "devolved" from a "policy message" into a "crass comedy routine."
Athey particularly appreciated Trump's "hilarious pantomiming" of a "female [weightlifter] struggling to lift a barbell, and then [a transgender woman] easily pumping out reps." Walsh classified that moment as one of several "ludicrous transphobic jokes" Trump made during his speech.