The Corner

White House

Pence and the Drax Invisibility Technique

House Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi (D, Calif.) speaks with Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I was on a plane during yesterday’s Oval Office meeting but I caught up with the video. I think some of the handwringing over the spectacle is misplaced. It’s good to see politicians argue with each other. I do think that Trump got rolled into calling any shutdown the “Trump shutdown,” though I’m not sure it matters much. The people who like the wall and border security or like to see Trump fight will like what they saw, and the people who don’t, won’t.

The question I have is, who came away thinking more of Mike Pence? I understand his predicament. He can’t get crosswise with Trump or the Trump base. But he also doesn’t want to overly antagonize those less warmly disposed to Trump and Trumpian drama, who might vote for him at some future date. He wants to seem loyal and potentially presidential, on the team, but his own man.

The thing is, that’s a strategy, and it’s a perfectly defensible one. Even if it’s hard to implement. George H. W. Bush was the first sitting vice president since Martin Van Buren to be elected straight to the presidency. Americans typically don’t elect veeps straight away for a bunch of reasons. If the president had two terms, voters are usually pretty restless by the end and want a change. Americans wanted a third Reagan term. If the president is a one-termer, their failure stains the VP too. But there’s another reason: The job of the vice presidency often emasculates the person who has it. It’s inherently a beta position. Vice presidents can be attack dogs, but that role has been taken by the president himself, leaving Pence to be the in-house Laodicean, neither hot nor cold.

But, again, what other choice does Pence have other than to follow the strategy of being a team player without the drama?

The thing is, there’s a difference between strategy and tactics. And I don’t see how the tactical decision to be in the middle of that scrum yesterday advanced the strategy. If the idea was to project the notion that he’s a crucial player, fine. Then he should have said something. If he wasn’t going to be a player, he shouldn’t have played at all. I am sure Trump wouldn’t have cared if Pence sat this one out.  But by just sitting there, obviously in great discomfort, he looked ridiculous.

It was almost like he recently watched the last Avengers movie.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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