Politics & Policy

Will Mike Pence Be the Power Behind the Throne?

Mike Pence sits behind the Trump family at the GOP convention in Cleveland, July 20, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The ignored importance of Trump's VP pick.

As the curtain rises in Cleveland tonight, America will finally be properly introduced to Indiana governor Mike Pence, who, until now, is likely a mystery to non-Hoosiers who don’t follow politics closely.

Yet for all of his previous semi-obscurity, Governor Pence’s nomination for vice president may be one of surprising historical importance. While he has a hard time attracting attention when standing next to the media black hole that is Donald Trump, it’s still shocking how little coverage, relatively speaking, Governor Pence has gotten. Because if Donald Trump wins the White House (and his current numbers are better than Romney’s were against Obama at this time in the campaign), Governor Pence could wind up one of the most powerful and influential vice presidents in the history of the office. Not bad for someone who got the job, in many ways, because much of the GOP’s top political talent took themselves out of the running.

A brief look back to 1980 shows just how dramatic an effect a single vice-presidential nomination can have on the subsequent course of American political history. In that year, Ronald Reagan attempted until the very last minute to get former president Gerald Ford as his running mate. When those negotiations broke down, Reagan finally, and somewhat reluctantly, selected George H. W. Bush, a member in good standing of the GOP’s more liberal Eastern-establishment wing, which had fought Reagan tooth and nail throughout the primary season. The rest, as they say, is history.

Had Reagan and Ford been able to close their deal, there would have been no George H. W. Bush to largely redirect Reagan’s conservative legacy and no George W. Bush to serve two terms of his own, winning office by capturing the vote of both his father’s more business-oriented “country club” Republicans and the party’s rising Evangelical wing. Of course, George W. Bush left office deeply unpopular, and the frustrations that limited-government conservatives had with his tenure were one of the main forces that gave rise to the Tea Party. It goes without saying that, in this counter-factual world that we have devised, we also would have had no Jeb Bush to soak up establishment dollars and attention in the 2016 cycle. It is literally impossible to imagine the GOP of the last 36 years had Reagan not picked Bush—the selection, for good or ill, was really that important. Vice presidents’ lives matter.

But even in comparison with the highly consequential Bush pick, the Trump pick of Governor Pence may be more immediately meaningful. At a trivial level, almost one-third of vice presidents have become president. Of the 14 who have done so, nine came to office because of the death or impeachment of the current president. If the goal in picking a vice president is to find someone prepared to assume America’s highest office, Pence, a governor with extensive experience in congressional leadership, fits the bill nicely.

Of course, there is a reflexive view among many conservative activists and intellectuals that discounts Trump’s chances of victory. One is instantly reminded of Pauline Kael’s famous remark about Richard Nixon: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. . . . ” Many conservative commentators and pundits live in a similar “special world” in which Trump supporters are outside their ken. But they would all be foolish not to acknowledge that Trump does, indeed, have a very real chance of becoming president. And that means Pence has a very real chance of being our next vice president, whether conservative activists and pundits love him or not.

The current forecast from the historically accurate 538 puts Trump’s odds of winning at 38.3 percent. In fact, the current forecast chances for a Trump victory are actually substantially better than Mitt Romney’s were at this point in the 2012 election cycle. Furthermore, Trump’s current forecast chance of victory essentially matches the best numbers Romney ever had against Obama. (Romney had a 38.9 percent chance of beating Obama for a brief instant in early October, according to 538Trump now has a 38.3 percent chance of victory.)

For whatever flaws Trump has, conservatives should never forget that Hillary Clinton isn’t just a terrible person—she’s a terrible candidate. Nor is Trump without his electoral appeal. And that means that Trump and Pence have a very real, very serious chance of being our next president and vice president.

And there is every reason to believe that a Vice President Pence would be almost uniquely historically powerful, in contrast to the beta role he seems to be cast in by the media. Trump seems quite interested in being president, but he does not seem all that interested in doing the work of the president. That’s where Pence comes in: Trump and his team have indicated they are looking for a “chief operating officer,” one with Washington experience. One can easily imagine a President Trump outsourcing almost all of his policy agenda to Pence – meaning a Vice President Pence could realistically set the agenda for most of the policies of a Trump administration outside of a few bright and shiny objects of particular interest to the Donald.

#related#Ironically, Pence’s agenda, while conservative in many ways, also dovetails nicely with that of the more “establishment” wing of the party. For example, on Trump’s signature issue of immigration, his vice-presidential nominee has more in common with Paul Ryan’s pro-amnesty position than he does with Donald Trump’s restrictionist views. Pence is certainly a conservative, but his record in both Congress and Indiana has suggested that he is uncomfortable (and often unsuccessful) standing up on principle on tough issues. It would be one of the delicious (depending on one’s taste) historical ironies, if voters, looking to elect someone to shake things up, instead wound up with almost a carbon copy of the GOP policies and style they thought they were throwing out.

While it is obviously impossible to predict the future, one thing is certain: Conservative voters should pay a lot of attention to Mike Pence tonight. Because it’s entirely possible that they will be looking at the power behind the throne in a Trump presidency. And what’s more, they may be looking at the man who will someday occupy the throne itself.

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