Has Mike Pence finally realized he’ll never be president? Last week, while speaking to a Federalist Society conference in Florida, Pence insisted that, contrary to his former boss Donald Trump’s recent claims, he couldn’t have overturned the 2020 election even if he wanted to. “President Trump is wrong,” Pence said in a speech to a conservative group in Florida. “Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”
It was both a tepid statement and a bombshell. Pence did not acknowledge a few known facts: that he and Donald Trump lost, Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, and Trump’s all-out war on democracy over the past 15 months will cause far-reaching damage. Pence instead merely clung to a technicality: It isn’t his fault that Trump isn’t president because, as vice president, he didn’t have the constitutional authority to make it so.
But this was as close as Pence has ever come to rebuking Trump—and, really, it was as close as nearly any prominent Republican has come to plainly stating that the former president’s desperate machinations to overturn the election were unconstitutional. The sure-to-arrive riposte from the former president duly followed. “I was right and everyone knows it,” he wrote, referring to his belief that the vice president has the authority to send election results back to state legislatures in the event of widespread fraud. In today’s GOP, merely saying, “The vice president can’t overturn the election, which may or may not have been legitimate” is news.
But did Pence truly have anything at stake? The Wall Street Journal applauded the former vice president’s resistance of his boss’s authoritarianism as his “finest hour.” CNN’s algorithmic conventional wisdom generator Chris Cillizza wrote that Pence “likely doomed whatever small chance he had at the presidency—at least in the near term—by saying what he said.”
That is a heavily caveated sentence, but it still strikes me as wrong. The reason Pence chose to speak out, however gently, is because his 2024 chances are effectively nonexistent. Yes, Pence’s day planner looks like that of a potential primary contender. He may decide to push into the 2024 conversation in more fulsome fashion in the months to come. (Trump is, at the moment, pushing for a coronation and is doing everything he can to keep potential challengers, particularly Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, out of the race.) But Pence is effectively an outsider, with no real constituency: His refusal to do Trump’s bidding on January 6, 2021, has made him persona non grata in Trump circles, but he’s hardly welcome in anti-Trump ones, either.
“I don’t imagine he’d have a whole lot of support,” Raymond Harre, vice chair of the GOP in Iowa’s Scott County, told Politico last summer. “There are some Trump supporters who think he’s the Antichrist.” For others within the Republican Party looking for a Trump alternative, Pence hardly fits the bill: He has one foot in the GOP’s moralizing past and the other in its Trumpist future. If there is some critical mass of Republican voters looking for candidates who are less tainted by either era, there will almost certainly be better choices available. Pence isn’t likely to satisfy anyone, a handful of members of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board notwithstanding. (Actually, given enough time, they may abandon him, as well.)
Moreover, Pence got the vice presidency on something of a technicality: He was enough of a nonentity in 2016 that he had little to lose by accepting the nomination for a job that no one thought he would ever actually hold. In the end, he ended up destroying his political career—a nice summation of how the Trump years went for many Republicans who decided to hitch their wagons to Trump’s star.
In this context, Pence’s comments look somewhat different. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, unable to wriggle free. His insistence that he couldn’t do what Trump wanted—which implies that perhaps he would have done it if he’d felt he could get away with it—is a fainthearted escape from this predicament, winking at both Trump’s supporters and his detractors but satisfying neither camp. His limp rebuke isn’t so much statesmanlike as it is a cheap means to evade responsibility, dressed up like a shot across Trump’s bow. At the very best, he’s stating the obvious. At the worst, he’s continuing to pay lip service to the fact that Trump is, somehow, the legitimate president of the United States. But deep down, Pence simply wants Republicans to know that it’s not his fault that Trump isn’t president right now.
It’s a tidy summation of Pence’s craven political career as the Little Nonentity That Could: He’s attempting to weasel out of taking a stand that could jeopardize the infinitesimally small sliver of a chance he has of becoming president. But it’s also a depressing summary of where Republican politics is at the moment. Pence’s statement was taken as a brave stand for the constitutional order and the rule of law not because it was some authentic declaration of his party’s sturdy values but because so few Republicans are willing to be forthright about Trump’s efforts to overturn a legitimate election—and his ongoing efforts to subvert the next one—that even a tatty and insincere facsimile of civic virtue seems daring by comparison.