Politics & Policy

Operation Retreat

What Mike Pence is thinking.

Since John Shadegg got into the House majority-leader race Friday, his supporters have been wondering, “Where is Mike Pence?” Pence heads the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus once led by Shadegg. Pence became a hero for conservatives around the country with his Operation Offset that called for spending cuts along with the massive new federal spending associated with Katrina, and his endorsement of Shadegg would be a significant boost for the underdog candidate.

But Pence has been mum. National Review Online spoke to him yesterday in what he says is his first interview since Shadegg’s entry. Even though Shadegg has RSC DNA, even though his commitment to the kind of conservative reform favored by Pence and many RSC-ers is unquestioned, Pence is staying neutral. More important to him than the horserace of public commitments of members at the moment–which has been sometimes silly, but is crucial to driving press coverage of the race–is the success of a RSC retreat scheduled for the end of the month.

Pence decided not to run himself “after a lot of prayer.” He says that after making that decision he committed “to try to think as hard about February 3 as my colleagues are thinking about February 2,” the date of the leadership election. By that, he means the agenda and the future of the party.

Pence hopes the debate over that agenda and future will take place at the RSC retreat. He wants to have “the widest possible participation by candidates and with the widest possible debate.” So his thought was that “I would endeavor to remain uncommitted” until the retreat. Moreover, he has “not encouraged or discouraged members from expressing support for any of the candidates.”

He says the analogy that’s been on his mind is the difference “between the horse [the agenda] and the rider [the leader]. If we don’t think real hard about the horse, and if all the focus is on changing the rider, we will have a difficult time in ‘06 and beyond.” Pence says his lesson from Operation Offset is that substance is the most important thing, “substance can move the agenda.”

He makes it clear he likes Shadegg. “I heartily welcome the entry of John Shadegg into the race,” he says (a sentence he repeats a couple of times for emphasis). “He’s a force of nature, a true believer in the Republican revolution. He brings an extremely important and credible element into the race.” Pence then adds: “I continue to intend to withhold any endorsement.”

He’s not surprised that members of the RSC, dozens of whom have already gone to Roy Blunt or John Boehner, “would break into a variety of camps,” given that all the candidates have conservative voting records. Pence warns against viewing the leadership candidates as “white hats or black hats.”

He says that his imperative as leader of the RSC has been to determine “how do I be fair to every member of the RSC who are breaking in every direction and be true to my core principles? My judgment is that the way to do that is by holding off on a public endorsement.”

The problem with Pence’s approach is that the race could be over before the RSC retreat happens. Indeed, Roy Blunt has declared it over, and is endeavoring as hard as he can–naturally enough–to make it really over (or over-er). Unless something changes the drift of the race–like a dose of Shadegg momentum–one has to assume Blunt will steadily gain until he gets over the top. At which point, the RSC retreat will be a nice formality.

Pence thinks differently. “If this race was going to be over,” he says. “It’s already over.” He says he has great faith in Blunt’s ability to count votes, but he thinks it will continue to be a “dynamic” race until the end. He hopes the retreat will have a key role to play in that.

The other problem with the Pence approach is that he is putting an excessive, perhaps naïve, faith in the power of the retreat. All the horse-trading and commitment-making are happening now, so it seems unlikely that members are going to wait until the end of the month, then carefully balance what they hear at the retreat, to make their picks.

Pence maintains, however, that there’s “something artificial about long distance” communication between members. He has great faith in the interchange that happens “when members of congress get together.” He cites a phrase from the Bible–”iron sharpens iron.” So it will be a good thing for members to be back together in Washington and “talk to whomever they want to,” exchanging ideas and opinions.

Even though most members may have endorsed one of the candidates, he says of the retreat, “I have a feeling that they are going to ask some good, real hard questions.” He seems proud that “a record number of members and their spouses” have RSVPed for the event.

Perhaps Pence is right about all this. But it seems unlikely. More important than the RSC retreat in advancing a conservative reform agenda is the strength of the candidate who embodies that agenda, John Shadegg. To the extent he can challenge the other candidates, it increase the RSC’s leverage, including at the end of the race at the retreat. Every Shadegg sympathizer I have talked to considers Pence’s non-endorsement a blow to Shadegg. Pence’s approach might be self-defeating, making the race less competitive rather than more and the retreat therefore less important.

“I probably will make a public endorsement,” he says of his endgame. He probably will. But will it matter?

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

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