Mike Pence made a deal in 2016. He agreed to become Donald Trump’s running mate and validate him among evangelical Christians as a flawed man who could be God’s instrument. In exchange, Pence got the chance to be vice president and to nudge an administration toward Pence’s movement conservative policy positions.
Both sides got what they wanted. And Pence has been paying penance for that deal ever since.
It must be humbling for a former vice president to come to New Hampshire and speak to modest-sized audiences, as Pence did at Turbocam in Barrington on Tuesday evening. Nearly 50 people turned out to see Pence. Many of them self-identified as Christians, based on the questions they asked.
Before Pence was governor of Indiana and vice president, he was a six-term congressman. He would have done events like this appearance at a local manufacturing company hundreds of times, and his small-group political experience showed.
When Pence arrived, he purposely went row by row shaking everyone’s hand before arriving at the front of the room. Pence complimented the company’s founder, Marion Noronha, by name, and referred to Turbocam by name several times during his remarks. When soft-spoken questioners were unable to be heard, Pence waded into the audience to meet them, then repeated the question for everyone else. That was not just some set, and Pence was not just going through the motions. Pence was present. For an hour, the people in the room were the most important people in Pence’s life.
Pence spent far more time doing Q&A (36 minutes) than he spent giving his stump speech (12 minutes), living up to his comment that he learned doing talk radio that he was better at dialogue than monologue.
One could have played cliché bingo. There’s more that unites us than divides us. To those much is given, much is expected. We can have a new birth of freedom, and you don’t change horses in the middle of a stream. This is no time for on-the-job training (is it ever?). Our best days are yet to come. They were all in there.
Pence did not equivocate in his support for Ukraine, saying it is in the national interest of the United States to help Ukraine repel Russia. He said explicitly that if Russia is successful in Ukraine, it is only a matter of time before Putin invades a NATO country, obligating the U.S. by treaty to intervene. He called China “the greatest strategic and economic threat to America.”
What wasn’t in Pence’s remarks was any edge. He didn’t name other candidates or contrast himself with them. He barely contrasted himself with President Biden. And there was no mention of January 6, the day that redefined Pence’s political identity. The closest Pence came to contrasting himself with his former boss came when Pence talked about the national debt and the need for a discussion of entitlement reform: “Frankly, my former running mate’s policy is identical to Joe Biden’s,” Pence said. Neither one is willing to touch that third rail.
Nor was there any acknowledgment of the contradictions that come with being Mike Pence. He talked about his grandfather emigrating from Ireland, then beat the table about the need to secure the border. The Biden administration is to be faulted for running up deficits, but let’s not mention the Trump-Pence deficits. We need to return civility to Washington. Maybe he could have mentioned that to his former boss?
Pence has been stuck in a political purgatory, a consequence of his own choices. MAGA world sees him as a traitor, and voters who want to move on from Trump see him as too loyal to his former boss. He can’t catch a break; perhaps his most prominent New Hampshire supporter, former state Sen. Bob Clegg, died suddenly last week just a Pence mail piece quoting Clegg arrived in Seacoast Republican mailboxes.
But campaigns make their own luck. Pence is still searching for a purpose to his candidacy, failing to articulate a specific reason why voters should support him and why they should not support the other candidates, and specifically why they should not vote for Trump again.
Maybe that will come on Wednesday when Pence is slated to give a speech at Saint Anselm College contrasting populism and conservativism.