If Donald Trump is elected president in November, we know what Mike Pence will be doing for the next four to eight years: serving as vice president.
But if Hillary Clinton wins, what does Pence do? He chose to run for vice-president instead of seeking reelection as governor of Indiana. Most, but not all, recent losing vice-presidential candidates have seen their post-campaign political fortunes decline. Paul Ryan went on to become speaker of the House, but Sarah Palin departed elected office, John Edwards flamed out after embarrassing scandals, Joe Lieberman became an apostate in his own party for supporting the Iraq War, Jack Kemp largely faded from the scene, and Dan Quayle never ran for office again.
Whether Pence meets a similar fate will depend on what happens in November. If Trump gets wiped out, there’s a good chance the party will conclude that embracing him was simply a giant, colossal mistake, and he’ll have very little role in the GOP going forward. But if he loses narrowly — say, keeping the popular vote close while carrying Ohio, Iowa, Florida, and Maine’s 2nd congressional district — then Republicans will begin next cycle asking how to keep those blue-collar white voters who were excited by Trump without alienating and frightening those white suburban moms who voted for Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Pence would enter any post-2016 efforts to unify the party in a unique position. He was Trump’s choice to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, and by almost any measure, he is doing a fine job as Trump’s running mate. He doesn’t make many mistakes and performs well in the few moments he gets the national spotlight, such as his convention speech and the debate. He’s doesn’t overwhelm anyone with raw charisma or zingers, but he offers a measured, reassuring, calming presence with its own appeal.
Would Trump voters gravitate to him? Maybe. Some might feel he didn’t do enough to defend the nominee Tuesday night, but he has done what almost no other elected conservative official was willing to do; spend five months of his life making the case for Trump to skeptics, placing a lot of his own credibility on the line. Would the party’s staunchest Trump critics forgive him? Some undoubtedly would not. Many of them accuse Pence of defending the indefensible in his role as the mogul’s running mate.
It is ironic, then, that Pence spent Tuesday night choosing not to defend the indefensible. Instead, he did what he has done throughout this campaign: He ignored Trump’s most controversial statements and worst moments and made the case for conservatism. In a messy year for the conservative cause, Pence has remained a voice for pro-lifers, tax cuts, fewer regulations, smaller government, the dignity of law-enforcement officers, shredding the Iran nuclear deal, and vetting Syrian refugees. He has tried to provide everything Republicans wished they were getting from Trump, and he deserves some conservative appreciation for his efforts.
#related#It’s really difficult to get a sense of what the 2020 Republican field will look like — which 2016 competitors will return for a second shot, which fresh faces will stir genuine interest, and which laughably unqualified conservative celebrities will jump in, hoping for a better book deal or Fox News gig. Pence wouldn’t necessarily begin the cycle as a favorite, but he would enter as a known quantity, a well-liked conservative who already stepped onto the national stage under intense pressure and performed well. He would be the opposite of a gamble for the party, and by 2020, the party may feel a severe hangover from a taking a big risk in 2016.
Then again, presidential campaigns are the most exhausting, intense undertaking in politics, and Pence may not be eager to jump onto the same roller-coaster again. In that case, it’s worth noting that Indiana’s Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly, will be up for reelection in 2018, and he’s likely to be vulnerable given the state’s reddish tint. In a Republican-leaning state in a midterm election year, Pence would begin as the favorite.
The man has options, in other words — provided he doesn’t end up moving into the Naval Observatory come January.