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Throughout the first year of the administration, as President Trump veered from one crisis of his own invention to another while fending off fast-moving investigations, people talked about Mike Pence as the guy more likely than any of his recent predecessors to wake up one morning and find himself president of the United States.
Now, with Trump nearing the halfway mark, with the investigations plodding along and the country acclimated to daily chaos, people talk about Pence as the guy in Washington who most desperately wants to be president, and who would say just about any noxious thing to set himself up as Trump’s natural successor.
In a much-discussed Washington Post column last week, the venerable conservative George Will proclaimed Pence the single worst person in government for publicly deifying Trump at Cabinet meetings and for sucking up to Trump supporters like the infamous Sheriff Arpaio in Arizona.
“Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic,” Will wrote. “Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying.”
Then, a few days later, a team of reporters at the New York Times weighed in with a detailed account of how Pence is subtly supplanting Trump, even as he exalts the president, by taking control of the party’s midterm strategy and establishing his own power base in the states.
But if it’s true that Pence is scheming and charming his way into prime position, like a slower version of Frank Underwood, then he’s probably wasting whatever talent he has, playing chess on a checkerboard. Because history and common sense would tell you that this is probably as close as Pence is getting to the presidency — or at least if the voters have anything to say about it.
There’s no question that Pence is building his own political operation, separate from Trump’s. Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, is one of the party’s sharpest young strategists, having once worked closely with Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush to elect a bevy of Republican governors.
Recently, as you may have read, Pence also tried to hire Jon Lerner, an aide to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, as his foreign policy adviser. (Trump nixed the idea, because Lerner had been a “never Trumper” during the campaign.)
Lerner is a pollster by trade, and a good one, who used to do focus groups for House Republicans. If you think Pence wanted him around for his advice on North Korea, then you probably think Jared Kushner has a unique grasp of the Middle East.
No, Pence is definitely positioning himself for an opening, which is exactly why he goes off at Cabinet meetings about how blessed he is just to breathe the same air as Trump. He says those things because the only way he can privately maneuver to consolidate power is to publicly venerate the boss at the same time.
This is politics 101. A guy like Ayers can do that math in his sleep.
Except here’s the problem for Pence: Close as he is to the presidency, his chances of ever getting the job fall somewhere between remote and imaginary.
Let’s look at three possible scenarios as Pence and his team must see them.
The first, I guess, is the 2024 plan. Trump gets reelected in 2020 on a soaring economy, leaves office a hero and bequeaths his legacy to his loyal No. 2, who vows to erect the new Trump Memorial on the site of the now-leveled FBI building.
Pence must know how unlikely this one is. Even if Trump were to be reelected and celebrated by a majority of Americans, which seems mathematically dubious, he’d probably try to keep the whole thing inside the family brand, drafting Ivanka to run, or maybe Jared, if they could teach him to speak without sounding like Mr. Bill from the old “Saturday Night Live”s.
At a minimum, Trump’s success would validate the idea of celebrity-driven, antiestablishment politics, leaving a pretty slim path for a career politician who promises Trumpism without the personal magnetism.
The second possibility is what you might call the gift wrap scenario. Robert Mueller stumbles on some kind of explosive revelation, Trump resigns or defects to Moscow, and the presidency is handed to Pence just in time for the 2020 campaign.
Pence becomes this generation’s Gerald Ford, who was a healer of the country after Watergate and barely lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, even after pardoning Richard Nixon and enduring a brutally divisive primary. Run that same election on five different days, and Ford probably wins it twice.
Except that Pence wouldn’t be anything like Ford, really. Ford had succeeded Spiro Agnew as vice president at the end of 1973; he’d barely had time to learn the lunch menu when he ascended to Oval eight months later. Everyone knew Ford had nothing to do with Watergate.
Pence, on the other hand, has played a one-man Greek chorus to Trump’s never-ending Zeus routine. If Trump goes down, Pence does, too. He might get a few months of presidential proclamations under his belt, but his odds for beating out other Republicans for the nomination, let alone a Democratic challenger, are about on par with Stormy Daniels winning an Oscar.
Which leads us to the final and most plausible path, which we can call the 2020 vision. Facing historic disapproval numbers, and growing tired of the same cheeseburger every night, Trump declares himself an overwhelming success and passes on reelection. Pence, like Hubert Humphrey, steps into the breach, the one man who can appeal to both Trump loyalists and party hacks, and trounces Gov. Cynthia Nixon in the Electoral College.
Well, OK. But if Trump is so unpopular that he feels obliged to step aside, it’s hard to imagine Republicans turning to his lackey as a savior. If they wanted someone who could bridge that intraparty divide, they could look to a Cabinet member like Haley or even Rick Perry, who wouldn’t have to walk back a bunch of poetic odes to the great leader.
And let’s be clear: There have been 24 vice presidents since 1900. Exactly one of them — George H.W. Bush — was elected president while occupying the vice presidency, following a popular presidency and facing a weak opponent. That would not be Pence’s situation.
A really talented politician might be able to pull it off. But this is the underlying problem: Pence is not an especially talented politician. His only statewide victory, to the governorship of Indiana in 2012, came in an overwhelmingly Republican state.
By 2016, after a series of controversies, most notably the antigay law that cost the state badly, Pence’s reelection was in serious doubt. Had he not been rescued by Trump, it’s plenty possible that he’d be running to reclaim the congressional seat that his older brother is now trying to win.
Pence is, to use a phrase once employed by Barack Obama, likable enough. He’s really not the worst person in government. He’s not even the worst person on the hallway.
What he is is too eager to please, too bendable in his convictions, too easily carried away in fawning rhetoric.
History has a name for people like that. It’s called a running mate. No amount of plotting will make it something else.
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