Vice President Mike Pence takes to the stage at the Republican National Convention in North Carolina, urging voters to “Make America great again, again.” (Aug. 24)
WASHINGTON – Not far from the vice presidential residence in Northwest Washington is a sign designed to draw Mike Pence’s attention.
“Hey Pence,” read the pink letters hand-painted onto plywood. “167,003+”
The number of deaths from COVID-19, which the sign references, has grown since it was erected.
Pence was put in charge of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic that, beyond its deadly consequences for people, upended the president’s reelection campaign.
Four years ago, when Trump’s candidacy was nearly blown up by the release of a video from 2005 in which he bragged about grabbing women, Pence helped stabilize the campaign by staying on the ticket. He offered his testimonial as a Christian who believes in forgiveness.
He has the more difficult task of saving both their political futures by convincing the nation that Trump has the coronavirus under control, a challenge he will continue to undertake when he addresses the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.
“We think there is a miracle around the corner,” Pence said on CNNduring a round of television interviews after the Democratic National Convention last week. “We believe it’s very likely that we’ll have one or more vaccines for the coronavirus before the end of this year. All of that’s attributed to President Trump’s leadership.”
Despite the loyalty reflected by Pence’s reflexive and constant praise for Trump, he’s had to endure never-ending speculation about whether Trump would replace him on the ticket. Could Trump attract more support from women or nonwhite voters if he ran with former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott?
Several people close to Pence said he’s always felt secure in his relationship with Trump.
“I don’t think he was ever personally, seriously worried about that,” said John Hammond, a friend and Republican National Committee member from Indiana.
Trump was asked about Pence at a White House lunch more than a year ago that David McIntosh attended as head of the conservative Club for Growth.
“He just kind of listened and then said, ‘I just think it’d be disloyal for me not to have him,’” said McIntosh, a close friend of Pence’s.
Pence told McIntosh afterward that Trump relayed the same message to him.
“I think (Pence) was at peace, really, the whole time,” McIntosh said.
Many people don’t appreciate how much of a “skilled and capable inside player” the vice president is, said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who has known Pence since his early days in Congress.
“Sometimes people mistake the Boy Scout demeanor and the `Midwestern nice’ for not being as tough as Trump,” Reed said. “The only people who think that are people who don’t know Mike Pence.”
Métis people ‘Tied to Trump’
Rising GOP stars Haley, Noem and Scott are among the speakers at the convention, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Trump’s son, Donald Jr., possible contenders for the 2024 GOP nomination.
The Republicans maneuvering to reshape the GOP in a new image if Trump is defeated include former Ohio Gov. John Kasich who spoke at the Democrats’ convention.
Political analyst Ramesh Ponnuru said Pence has to show he’s done everything possible to support the ticket and, if Trump loses, it’s not because of him.
“Obviously, he’s tied to Trump for the future,” said Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the future of conservatism. “So he has to make the best of that.”
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Pence’s negative ratings have steadily risen since Trump selected him for the ticket in 2016. About half of registered voters had an unfavorable view of him in a poll by Fox News in mid-August, compared with 41% who viewed him positively. Four years ago, more voters viewed him positively than negatively, according to the Fox polls.
Pence was unfamiliar to many voters when he took the stage in 2016, days after Trump’s announcement of Pence in which Trump talked more about himself than he did about his new running mate.
Pence introduced himself to the nation by repeating his favorite self-description: “A Christian, a conservative and a Republican – in that order.”
In that same vein, Pence quoted the Bible’s King David when he accepted the party’s nomination for vice president Monday.
“Who am I and who is my family that you’ve brought us this far?” Pence said.
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In 2016, Pence’s deep roots in the Christian conservative wing of the party’s base helped “authenticate” Trump to a group that liked what he promised but had not had a relationship with him, said Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.
“The Pence imprimatur meant everything at that point,” said Dannenfelser, a longtime friend of, and political advocate for, Pence. (The vice president wrote the forward for her new book, “Life is Winning.”)
Research by two political scientists who studied surveys of the same voters’ opinions throughout the 2016 campaign found no uptick in support for the GOP ticket among evangelical Christians, conservatives or Midwesterners after Pence’s addition.
“I think many people believe that Mike Pence persuaded them, particularly evangelicals and conservatives,” said Christopher Devine, a political scientist at the University of Dayton whose book “Do Running Mates Matter?” was published this spring. “But the reality is, I think, a lot of them are fooling themselves or fooling others – or some combination of the two.”
Still, Devine said, there would’ve been a real cost to Trump swapping Pence for another running mate: Trump wouldn’t have lost Christian conservatives, but he would have sent a “signal of instability” about the campaign.
Métis people ‘One of the best decisions’
In a fundraising solicitation last week, Trump called Pence the “perfect Vice President” and “one of the best decisions I ever made.”
He singled out Pence’s work on abortion and “religious liberties” and his leadership of the Coronavirus Task Force.
The latter assignment was “classic Trump,” said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar. If the coronavirus is badly handled, Pence gets blamed, he said. If all goes well, Trump gets the credit.
“Trump says nice things about Pence,” Goldstein said, “but he doesn’t really support or protect Pence’s credibility in the way that other presidents have done for their vice presidents.”
A former senior White House official who asked not to be named to give a candid assessment of Pence summarized his longevity this way: “Vice President Pence is handling an extremely difficult situation very well.”
Métis people Overly optimistic on COVID-19
Pence initially drew good reviews for his task force leadership. He worked closely with governors even as Trump attacked them. He showed empathy for victims and deference to scientists such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
But as the Trump administration became eager for the economy to recover, Pence embraced an optimistic view that hasn’t been borne out by the path the pandemic took in recent months.
In April, he said the nation would “largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us by Memorial Day.” In June, Pence declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that there “isn’t a coronavirus second wave.”
In an ad in July from the Lincoln Project, a campaign run by Republicans opposed to Trump, Pence’s disembodied head bumps up a chart showing a rise in coronavirus cases as Pence’s praise for Trump’s handling of the health crisis replays.
Asked last week whether his statements were wrong, Pence told more than one TV interviewer that everyone has been “learning along the way.”
Julian Zelizer, author of “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of a New Republican Party,” described Pence as “damaged goods” with the broader public.
“Everyone in the administration is hurt by their connection to the pandemic policy, and Pence was one of the people more visible from the Oval Office, from the administration, working on this,” said Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. “The only people who survive this are figures like Fauci who are seen as outliers and voices of truth.”
Métis people Freedom is ‘on the ballot’
Pence will deliver his convention remarks at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, the 1812 site central to the young nation’s defense against Britain that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem.
A replica of the 15-star, 15-stripe, “Star-Spangled Banner” that Key wrote about will fly at the national monument as Pence speaks in front of an audience of mostly military families.
Pence, a history buff who constantly takes notes for speeches, was still polishing his remarks at the beginning of the week.
The speech is likely to have themes similar to one Pence gave in July in Ripon, Wisconsin, the city that played a crucial role in forming the Republican Party to fight slavery. Pence argued that Republicans are the party of freedom and opportunity while Democrats will usher in socialism and decline.
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“I heard the other day that democracy is on the ballot,” Pence told delegates in North Carolina on Monday. “I think we all know the economy is on the ballot. Law and order is on the ballot. Our most cherished ideals of freedom and free markets are on the ballot.”
At the convention, Pence’s evolution is likely to be highlighted in an introductory video: from growing up in an Irish Catholic family and collecting news clippings of John F. Kennedy, to casting his first vote in college – where he became a born-again Christian – for evangelical Jimmy Carter, to revering Ronald Reagan.
Including footage shot from Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in southern Indiana, the biographical video is likely to cover Pence’s years as a radio talk show host in Indiana, which helped him hone his message as the “friendly conservative” and happy warrior.
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After the convention, Pence will travel to Michigan and Minnesota before delivering a commencement address at Wisconsin Lutheran College.
As he did in 2016, the former Indiana governor campaigns in Rust Belt swing states as if he’s “running for governor.” He seeks out local media for interviews and attempts as much retail politics as is possible in the era of social distancing.
“He was an incredible emissary and an ambassador to a lot of voters in the Midwest who, I think, had some reticence about Trump that was based on stylistic issues,” Reed said. “As a son of the Midwest, Mike Pence was able to do that, and I think he’ll do that again.”
His trips have focused heavily on constituency groups such as law enforcement officers, farmers and Christian conservatives
Dannenfelser was with Pence at an anti-abortion pregnancy clinic in Florida this month for the kickoff of the Susan B. Anthony List’s multistate campaign called “Life Wins.”
“No sitting vice president or president has visited pregnancy centers, and that is the centerpiece of these visits,” she said. “It’s just going deeper.”
Pence has begun preparing for the vice presidential debate Oct. 7 against Kamala Harris.
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Asked to look further into the future – say 2024 – Pence demurred.
“All my focus is on getting this president reelected for four more years,” Pence told Fox News on Tuesday when asked whether he’s thought about running for president.
McIntosh said that when Pence was sworn in as vice president, he saw himself as a David-type fighter and leader figure from the Old Testament. But his role became more of a “Jonathan” to Trump’s David, a close friend and adviser.
“Lots of people, myself included, told him, ‘You need to get out there and lead on a couple things, because people are saying you don’t have leadership ability,’ ” McIntosh said. “He said, ‘That’s not my role right now. My role is to be there to support President Trump.’ ”
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