Opinion

Was it worth it, Mike Pence?

Mike Pence made a deal with the devil. Ron DeSantis is about to snatch his prize.

Is there life for Mike Pence after Trump?

This month, the former vice president looked to put some room between himself and his old boss with remarks he made in Florida to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. Prompted by former President Donald Trump's recent reiteration of his false claim that Pence could have overturned the 2020 election while presiding over the Jan. 6 electoral certification, Pence responded. "President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election," he told the gathering, a rare expression of plain truth in the GOP on the subject of Trump's lies.

It was also an even rarer criticism of Trump by Pence himself, who has usually acted as a simpering sycophant of the former president. While not directly attacking Trump, Pence did say there was "no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president," denouncing the very notion Trump has repeatedly pushed.

But more than evincing honor or bravery, Pence's speech served to highlight all the times he stayed quiet while Trump ran roughshod over the Constitution, demeaned the office of the presidency, and weakened the democratic foundations of the American system. Instead of showing his integrity, Pence revealed his bald self-interest. As a person close to him admitted to CNN, Pence has never wanted to rebuke Trump for any of his many wrongdoings or his numerous character failures. "But if something is falsely said about him," the source said of Pence, "he is going to correct it."

For the ambitious Pence, who has long eyed the Oval Office, defending his own reputation is finally the reason to stand up to Trump.

Not that it will work. While Pence is clearly planning a presidential run for 2024 — he's made several trips in the last year to early primary states, like Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and has more planned in the coming months — he's barely registering with GOP voters who remain in Trump's thrall. An aggregation of recent polls shows Trump dominating the potential 2024 GOP field, racking up an almost 40-point lead over Republicans' current second-place choice, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In an even-more-distant third, Pence's polling is stuck in the single digits.

We're still some two years from when Republican voters will cast their primary ballots, yes. But given the current political landscape on the right, DeSantis seems most primed to overtake Trump, if anyone can.

There are several factors working in DeSantis' favor, including being a fairly-popular, if controversial, governor of a state with the third-largest slate of Electoral College votes. That controversy, driven by his laissez-faire handling of COVID and his aggressive response to Florida counties that sought to enact stricter pandemic regulations, has made him a darling on the right. Thanks to steady appearances on Fox News, plus lots of gushing coverage of his governorship by the network, DeSantis is gaining an impressive national profile. And his assault on voting rights and stoking of fears about critical race theory in Florida's public schools show how deftly he's pulling straight from Trump's playbook. It looks like DeSantis' strategy to win the Republican nomination comes down to out-Trumping Trump.

What's Pence's plan? If he's angling to position himself as Trump-lite — someone who can deliver Trump's hardline policies without his heinous personality — he's misjudging the moment. The mood on the right is one of revolution, not reformation. Pence's solemn, choir-boy posturing has little appeal when what so many Republican voters seem to want is an unhinged political arsonist.

Still, Pence is taking a stab at it. Fox News has reported he's spending a lot of time in South Carolina, home to the third primary on the GOP schedule, in a bid to court white evangelical voters with his strong anti-abortion stance. Yet if the last five years have shown anything, it's that conservative religious voters have shifted their political priorities to issues like immigration, national security, and, increasingly, opposing COVID regulations and vaccine mandates. Their more traditional anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ concerns are no longer at the fore. And if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade (1973) this summer, as many legal experts expect, the question of abortion rights should be even less animating for conservative Republicans.

None of this can be the political path Pence imagined for himself when he signed on as Trump's running mate in 2016. For the devout Pence, there may be as much a spiritual lesson in that truth as there is a political one: When it comes to sacrificing yourself for Trump, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

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