Does it have a future on Pennsylvania Avenue?
Mike Pence was elected governor of Indiana in November 2012 almost under the radar. Other events attracted more attention, particularly the state’s Senate race, which attracted national attention after Richard Mourdock, the Republican nominee, knocked off six-term senator Richard Lugar in the GOP primary and then threw away any chance of winning by saying that pregnancies stemming from rape are “something that God intended to happen.” Then there was Mitch Daniels, Indiana’s popular two-term governor, whose legacy hovered over Pence as he campaigned. Pence had no catchy campaign slogans, only talk of taking the Hoosier state from “good to great” and “from reform to results.”
Before his run for the governorship, though, Pence had turned heads. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol urged him to run for president in 2012. So did Club for Growth president Chris Chocola and FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, two prominent free-market leaders. Pence is a favorite of social conservatives, too. He is perhaps best known for his oft-repeated statement that he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” At the Value Voters Summit in 2010, he won the straw poll for both president and vice president. Frequently mentioned as a dark-horse candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he is among a handful of Republican governors Mitt Romney said he’d like to see vie for it.
Pence spent a decade (1990 to 2000) as a radio talk-show host after mounting two failed bids for Congress, in 1988 and 1990, and he is conversant on political issues across the spectrum. He is also unusual among politicians for having moved from a media career into politics rather than the other way around. In radio, he says, he gained confidence in the good sense of his fellow Hoosiers. “People would call me from the back of tractors, they would call me between sales calls, they would call me from their kitchen tables,” he says. A senior aide says part of the reason that The Mike Pence Show took off — ultimately it was syndicated on 19 stations — is that Pence “would always meet people at the highest level.” He developed a reputation for listening and being fair-minded.
In 2012, a presidential bid would have been tough: James Garfield was the last man to jump directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency. Pence ran for governor instead. It was a close race: He won by 2.9 percentage points.
Come 2016, Pence’s résumé would serve him well. The former six-term congressman would bring both legislative and executive experience to a field likely to be filled by those with one or the other. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is the only other likely candidate to boast both credentials. While Pence has been in Indianapolis, the ever-present tension between the conservative movement and the Republican party — tension that a politician like him could potentially ease — has only grown.
In his office on the second floor of Indiana’s statehouse, Pence is surrounded by portraits of former Indiana governors, a photograph of himself as a congressional candidate with a smiling Ronald Reagan, and a painting of Abraham Lincoln, who, Pence is quick to point out, spent his formative years in Indiana. The 54-year-old governor is soft-spoken, the rare person who conveys enthusiasm by lowering his voice rather than raising it. He is unabashedly hokey: He talks often of “everyday Hoosiers” and of doing things the “Indiana way.”
Pence tells me that his experience in Washington has made him a better governor, although his dozen years in the nation’s capital seem mostly to have reinforced his distaste for the federal government. “People say to me, ‘When is Congress going to be able to lead?’ I know those people,” he says. “Congress is never going to be able to lead. Congress isn’t designed to lead.”
Pence has long pushed for a “renewed federalism” that would restore to the states their rightful powers. More than once, he mentions Reagan’s 1982 speech to a joint session of the Indiana state legislature in which the 40th president vowed to return responsibility for more than 40 federal programs to the states, in a “realignment of government.” The senior aide says that behind this goal is an appreciation of and enthusiasm for competitive federalism, the idea that states are in constant competition with one another for people and investments. The states “know they’re all part of a great league, but they compete with one another, like the NBA,” the aide says.
One of Pence’s first acts as governor was to rename the state’s Office of Federal Grants and Procurements the Office of State Based Initiatives. “Even when we can get money from Washington,” he says, “we apply a cost-benefit analysis.” The website of this office, which is still devoted to securing federal funds, proclaims that its policy goal is to “promote Hoosier solutions to Hoosier problems” and that “Indiana must take the lead in pushing back against federal mandates that stifle Hoosier ingenuity in finding solutions to public policy problems.”
His commitment to reviving federalism made Pence one of the Bush administration’s chief Republican foes. He has recalled arriving in Washington to find that the GOP’s top legislative priority — one that George W. Bush had campaigned on in 2000 — was the No Child Left Behind Act, which ushered in a large expansion of the federal government’s role in education. Pence was one of just 34 Republican congressmen to vote against the bill, which passed the House 384–45. The party’s top legislative priority in the next Congress was Medicare Part D, the expansion of Medicare to cover seniors’ prescription drugs. Pence was one of just 19 Republicans to vote no. The bill passed by one vote.
In a speech at the Heritage Foundation in 2004, Pence lauded Bush’s leadership in the War on Terror but described the president’s domestic initiatives as evidence that the conservative movement had faltered. “The conservative movement today is like the tall ship with its proud captain: strong, accomplished, but veering off course into the dangerous and uncharted waters of big-government Republicanism,” he said.
That kind of talk, and his penchant for broadcasting his views on national television, did not win him many friends among administration officials, who told him he would stagnate in Congress. But he did not. Four years after joining Congress, in 2005, he was elected chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus within the House. He hassled the Bush administration to the end, voting against the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program in late 2008. In 2009, as the voice of an increasingly disgruntled coterie of small-government conservatives, he was elected chairman of the Republican Conference, the third-highest GOP leadership position.
Back in Indiana, Pence continues his fight against the federal government. He negotiated with a resistant Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2013 to secure a one-year waiver permitting Indiana to continue the Healthy Indiana Plan, a health-insurance program for low-income residents, rather than expand Medicaid as most states did under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The plan requires contributions to a health savings account (HSA) and has a record of success. When I ask him about it, Pence is quick to note that HSAs were the brainchild of J. Patrick Rooney, “a visionary Hoosier”; he calls Indiana the “home court of HSAs in the country.” The plan’s ultimate goal is to end traditional Medicaid in Indiana for all but the aged, blind, and disabled.
On Pence’s watch, Indiana became the first state to withdraw from the Common Core Standards. The education benchmarks, adopted by 44 states, have provoked outrage from conservatives who worry that the measure would water down curricula and weaken local authority. Other states may follow Indiana’s lead — Oklahoma already has. On April 15, the Pence administration issued proposed academic standards that it says are better than any the state has ever had.
As 2016 approaches, Pence will no doubt again be entreated to run. “People have said to me, ‘Should the next president be a governor?’ Obviously, I’m sympathetic to that thought,” he says. “That’s meant to be funny.” The Indiana governor knows what he wants to hear from the GOP nominee. “I’ll tell you what I’m listening for just as a citizen and a voter,” he says. “I don’t want to hear somebody who says, ‘Send me to Washington, D.C., and I’ll run the government like I ran my state.’ Washington, D.C., is not a state, literally and figuratively. What I’m listening for is somebody that says, ‘Send me to Washington, D.C., and I’ll work to make it more possible for the next person running my state to run it with more freedom and more flexibility.’ That’s a message.”