To many, Mike Pence seems like a simple man with a big dream of one day reaching the Oval Office. Coming to Washington, Pence was seen as an unrealistic conservative who remained staunch in his views and foolishly optimistic of what could be achieved in Congress. Rather than spend time drafting legislation of his own, he focused his efforts on preventing what he saw as political disasters. From President George W. Bush’s education initiative to the 2008 bank bailout, Pence took it upon himself to stand up to the Republican leadership. His courage to dissent eventually paid off, as he began working his way up the ranks to become Republican conference chairman, before leaving the post to run for governor. Every move Pence made was crafted with the hope of an eventual presidential bid—that is until April 2015, when his political ambitions seemed to come crashing down. His signing and eventual backtrack of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act received widespread backlash, and the Indiana governor struggled to recover from the political blunder. His White House dream never seemed so out of reach. That is, until Donald Trump came around.
Donald Trump is everything Mike Pence is not. Trump is loud; he’s dramatic; he’s impulsive; he’s rude. Pence is quiet; he’s reserved; he’s disciplined; he’s polite. The stark differences are apparent in personality and ideology alike. From their stances on trade, war, health care— and everything in between—Trump and Pence can’t seem to agree on very much of anything. While the reasoning behind Trump’s decision to tap Pence is relatively obvious—Pence’s sober demeanor provides a balance to Trump’s erratic behavior; he has the trust of the establishment and ties to the Republican leadership in Washington; and he has legislative experience and knowledge Trump lacks in order to get things done—the real question is, why would Pence ever agree to tie himself to Trump? While many see it as political suicide for the Indiana governor, it could just be his political Hail Mary.
Although Pence’s fierce political ambitions were hard to miss, he lacked the name recognition and commanding personality that would earn him a spot on the national stage. Following a few rocky years in the governor’s office, Pence searched for ways to resuscitate his waning political career. Little did he know his saving grace would be none other than Donald Trump. The media has become obsessed with everything Trump, and anything associated with the real estate mogul is sure to make headlines. Pence finally earned his big break when Trump came knocking on his door, and the opportunity to stand in the limelight proved too hard to resist. As other Republican leaders kept their distance, Pence seized the opportunity to make his voice be heard.
While many view the recent inconsistencies in the Trump campaign as evidence of disarray and mayhem among the staff, we see it as Pence capitalizing on his current situation. As vague as Trump has been on his policy positions, vision for the future, and plan to get things done, he has made one thing unquestionably clear: Trump will never stop being himself. Pence agreed to be his running mate knowing the offensive comments, controversial policies, and jaw dropping jabs would continue, and he knew he could use this to his advantage.
While the media continues to question why these running mates seem to be depicting two diverging, often entirely opposite campaign messages, Pence is patting himself on the back as he inches closer to an eventual White House bid. Many political pundits painted Pence as the “yes man,” hired to bow at every request and trained to filter Trump’s outrageous comments into more digestible language. However, Pence has shown he has a mind of his own. His decision to endorse Paul Ryan a day after Trump refused exemplified the glaring division at the top of the ticket. While it is not unheard of for running mates to differ on policy issues, the decision to part ways on something as symbolic and typically uncontroversial as supporting the campaign of a party leader shows an unprecedented break in campaign unity. Pence is looking out for himself, and his decision to come out with his own statement following every Trump blunder is public relations 101: control the narrative before someone controls it for you. In this case, Pence realized that by staying quiet, the public would assume he agrees with Trump and is letting his blind ambition cloud his morals. So, he decided to speak up.
Over the past few weeks, Pence has proven to be the voice of reason, the beacon of hope, and the light at the end of the dark tunnel for Republicans. While Pence undoubtedly embraces a slew of controversial views himself and has a questionable record that would otherwise be ripped apart by critics and voters alike, no one can seem to take their attention off Trump long enough to acknowledge these red flags. All of Pence’s flaws, controversies, and shortcomings are being drowned out by Trump—who has Republicans scrambling to find a way to keep their party from falling apart. Now is the time for him to step up and demonstrate his leadership skills, his ability to resolve conflict, and his dedication to furthering the conservative policies he has vowed to pursue. Republicans are looking for someone—anyone really—to save the party Trump has effectively hijacked and Pence has the opportunity to play the hero.
The vice presidential hopeful will continue to walk a political tightrope up until the November election. The risks are great. He is in danger of forever being identified as the person who sold his political soul to Trump. However, for Pence—a man who didn’t have much of a political future to begin with—the opportunity outweighs the risk. If Trump loses, Pence will likely avoid any blame because, as we all know, you can’t save Trump from himself. But if he wins, Pence has the opportunity to influence the course of the country, and saddle up for his own presidential bid. There is speculation that Trump cares more about winning than actually governing. If this is true, Pence’s position in office will wield more power than ever before.
Joining forces with Trump was a political Hail Mary—a risk most politicians with their eye on the Oval would not have taken. But as Pence has shown, desperate times call for desperate measures.
LEVICK Fellow Kelsey Chapekis contributed to this post.