Poor Mike Pence. The former Republican vice president apparently thinks he has a chance to win the GOP nomination for president even after an angry mob of Republicans stormed the U.S. Capitol with the intention of hanging him for betraying their dear leader, Donald Trump. So Pence is running around the country making speeches in front of small audiences as if he has a snowball's chance in hell of winning a national election again when the sad fact is that he is a man without a constituency.
Republicans who loved Pence when he was Trump's most ardent disciple consider him a traitor. Those who respect him for doing the job every vice president who came before him had done on January 6 still loathe him for all of the years he spent ostentatiously licking Trump's boots. There might be a handful of GOP officials and operatives who look at Pence and see a sort of ghostly George W. Bush (whose vocal delivery he shamelessly apes), and the press, of course, wants to cast him as a viable Trump rival. But the truth is that Mike Pence is a walking piece of Wonderbread toast.
Notably, Pence and Trump have been holding competing public appearances for the last couple of weeks. Down in Arizona, Trump held a rally for a couple of wildly extreme GOP candidates for governor and senate, Kari Lake and Blake Masters, as well as a few kooky down ballot endorsees. He gave his usual meandering performance, delighting the large crowd with many of his greatest hits. At the microphone, Lake praised the former president for his inspiration:
"President Trump taught us how to fight and I took a few notes. That's why I go after the fake news because he showed us how to do it. He gave us the game plan and he showed us exactly how to stand up and fight. Republicans need to fight back"
Trump made it very clear that he was going to keep fighting, telling the crowd, "I ran twice and I won twice and I did much better than the second time than the first, getting millions more votes in 2020 than in 2016 and now, we may have to do it again."
Across town, Mike Pence was speaking at a rally of about 300 people on behalf of Kari Lake's opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, whom he described as the true conservative in the race as if anyone cares about that anymore. Pence's big zinger of the night was a swipe at Lake — "Arizona Republicans don't need a governor that supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton" — which he delivered like a blast of foghorn. Nobody mentioned Jan. 6 or the 2020 election.
As it happens, the two former allies also held opposing speeches just a few days later in Washington D.C. Trump returned to the scene of the crime to ostensibly give a policy address at the America First Policy Institute, a Trump-allied "think tank" and slush fund devoted to the former president and culture war propaganda, while Pence spoke at the Young America's Foundation. The media portrayed these two speeches as a clash of visions for the Republican Party, with Trump offering his patented hellscape view of "American Carnage," complete with his laundry list of grievances about the allegedly stolen 2020 election, while Pence supposedly offered a fresh look to a brighter future which was interpreted as a jab at his former boss. That jab was most apparently expressed as, "I don't know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus." (That's telling him...)
That difference in focus is at the center of several big questions for Republicans in 2022 and 2024: Which vision do they want the party to follow? Which do they think is more appealing to the voters they need in order to win a majority? And even if they agree with Trump on the issues, is his focus — with its dark tone and feedback-loop quality — helpful in that pursuit?
But this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump's appeal and Pence's lack of it.
"Issues" as we previously understood them no longer exist in the Republican Party. Trump's "dark tone and feedback-loop quality" are the issues. It's all about grievance, anger and resentment served up with the juvenile derision and mockery that only a true demagogue can deliver. A bowl of lukewarm water like Mike Pence simply can't serve that no matter how many dramatic pauses he takes in his speeches.
But the fact that he cannot deliver a crude joke or stick the knife in and twist it with Trumpian glee doesn't mean that Pence isn't running on Trumpism.
Pence's "policy agenda" is full of culture war grievances. He released a pamphlet last spring in which he promoted "patriotic" education (meaning shallow jingoism, banning books and refusing to teach the truth about American history and the indigenous, Black and immigrant experiences.) He backs the cruel assault on transgender kids, draconian laws against abortion and all of the other far-right talking points that Trump and every other Republican on the campaign trail are running on. Pence just hasn't weighed in on the Great Replacement Theory, yet, so perhaps that's what defines a sunny moderate these days.
Most importantly, while he doesn't talk about the 2020 election, Pence also hasn't said a word against the attack on democracy that GOP state legislators and other officials are enacting all over the country. If anything, he's enabling them by endorsing the fatuous insistence that "in-person voting" must be enforced and mail-in voting should be (safe, legal and) "rare." There is no reason for any of that except to continue to encourage the false belief that the electoral system has been compromised on behalf of the Democrats. It is, in fact, the Big Lie and Pence is now perpetuating it just as the man who sat idly by while his rabid mob chanted "hang Mike Pence" has done.
Nonetheless, Pence is as obsequious and submissive as ever, refusing to stand up for himself even in face of what Trump did to him that awful day and never saying a harsh word about his former mentor. He's forlornly trying to salvage a political career based entirely on his fervent devotion to the man whom the only people who would vote for him believe he betrayed. Sad isn't the right word to describe it. It's pathetic.