Las Vegas specializes in making money off of people who just can’t walk away. But on Saturday in Sin City, that’s exactly what former Vice President Mike Pence did. An ironic place for the most pious politician I’ve covered to announce what will likely be the end of his political career.
It was a long shot bid from the start, so, its early end was no surprise. “It’s become clear to me: This is not my time,” was the apt comment he delivered at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference. I cannot recall agreeing with him more strenuously, but for more reasons than I expect he intended.
Pence’s time ended shortly after the 2016 election, as did the era of his entire brand of conservativism. The GOP shift toward the populist, inarticulate, grievance-based platform of today cannot credibly tout the Holy Bible as its guide. It never really could, but the party’s hate-based rhetoric of today has made the hard-to-take-seriously piousness of the party’s past an unfunny joke. Pence never wavered from his version of Christianity, though.
Message discipline could be his greatest asset. No matter how bad the message might have been, he was always entirely committed to it. So much so, the repetitiveness of it eventually would damage his authenticity on the stump. However, this skill was a difference maker for the ticket in 2016. He was the only guy who could stick to the script in that chaotic campaign, and I firmly believe that without this contribution, Hillary Clinton wins.
Not his time
Many give him high marks for his public speaking talents. I absolutely don’t. Admittedly, I already know that I am about to disagree with him before he makes a sound. But that’s part of the task at hand in political speech: to move people.
Try to recall a time he did that. Ever. There’s not a moment when he moved a crowd from hostile to simply opposed; from opposed to interested in listening more; or, from neutral to agreeable. On his own side of the aisle, he only succeeded at choosing a narrative he already knew his audience would applaud. As a political writer and communication consultant present in Indiana for almost his entire career, I can attest that I’ve never heard anyone say, “You really should have heard that Pence speech last night!”
It’s not the time for his policy positions either. The American people disagree with him on abortion. His viewpoint had its biggest victory last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, but what has followed has been a clear objection to it that will likely haunt the remains of the GOP for the foreseeable future.
I’ve written about it before, but governmental control of anyone’s body is not conservatism. It’s pushing totalitarianism. Conservatives adopted the pro-life mantra without reconciling its fundamental contradictions with their platform. And Pence was one of that duality’s leaders. Again, a knock on his authenticity that his supporters are unable to see.
Lack of victories
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and his monumental mishandling of it, is the event that defines him for many Hoosiers. It was a law that discriminated, by design, against the LGBTQ community. Pence knew that as well as anyone, but he knew he couldn’t get away with just saying that. So, he didn’t. And it cost him twenty points in his approval rating at the time, points he never got back.
In twelve years as a member of the U.S. House, none of his bills became law. He would cause trouble for things his chosen constituency abhorred, but he doesn’t have any policy victories on his congressional resumé to tout. That’s probably the thing about his career that translates to today better than anything, his tendency to cause more problems than he solves.
Modern conservatism, beginning with Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative,” in 1960 as its opening act, through the George W. Bush presidency, has been put to rest. Compassion is not even seen as an admirable quality in today’s GOP — it has become synonymous with weakness.
There isn’t a lane available for Pence to take to the White House anymore. His most valued qualities are no longer assets in the eyes of his party. Maybe things would be different for him today had he fully embraced the hard truths of the 2020 election, and more fully taken the high road through the mess his old boss’s lies and criminality have caused. Maybe.
His political brand is highlighted by a career’s worth of troubles, some of his own making, others through his willful acquiescence. His sins are now ironically unforgivable, by a crowd that has never been more in need of forgiveness.