Brian Howey: Pence's long game in the Trump twilight zone
Saturday, February 18, 2017 8:46 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence has always taken the so-called “long view” when it comes to his career. After losing two congressional races in the late 1980s, he settled into a think tank and broadcasting career, then went to Congress in 2001.
Mike Pence in his Indiana Statehouse office with the portrait of former Indiana governor and Vice President Thomas R. Marshall behind him. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
In 2011, he mulled a presidential bid for the following year, then focused on becoming Indiana’s 50th governor. There was the potential for a 2016 White House campaign. Some believe that his signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act knocked him out, but others say he knew the crowded field left him only a slender path to the nomination. The clearer path was to get on the presidential ticket, and from May through July 2016, he executed a savvy strategy, wooing Donald Trump when dozens of other Republicans took a pass. When the veep nomination flickered on July 14, he boarded a charter jet and retrieved the prize.
When mainstream Republicans questioned the Trump credentials, Pence exhorted them to come home in the campaign homestretch, playing a significant role in notching one of the biggest upsets in U.S. presidential history.
On Jan. 20, he became Vice President Pence.
We have been carefully monitoring Vice President Mike Pence’s standing in the Trump White House over the past 26 days. It’s been a fascinating exercise, since President Trump has a long history of playing top aides and associates off against each other. Trump Inc. is a clan enterprise, not a Fortune 500 company. The sons, daughters and in-laws wield the clout, not a board of directors. Those outside the family need that extra savvy, the correct width of necktie, the right colored suit, and an enhanced level of loyalty. If you can’t pass that muster, you’re fired. Pence could try to roll back federal LGBT protections, but daughter Ivanka crimped that.
Trump probably can’t fire a vice president, but then again we hadn’t fathomed Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigning a year ago after her own fallout with Gov. Pence.
At this writing, Vice President Pence is ensconced in the Trump Twilight Zone. The brutal realities of being in this warren became apparent over the weekend when the press pried out an unruly fact, that the national security adviser had lied to Pence. He had been talking to the Russian ambassador about rolling back Obama era sanctions. The vice president went on Face the Nation and perpetrated a lie about Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador. Pence was out of the loop for 15 days. His press guy, Marc Lotter, acknowledged Pence had “incomplete information.” In the era of alternative facts, most of us that call it a “lie.”
Top Pence aides tell the national media he felt “blindsided” and “frustrated.”
Since then, it’s gotten even more peculiar. There’s that 2015 photo of Flynn dining with President Putin, a year before the Kremlin intervened in the U.S. presidential race. There are now CNN and New York Times reports that the Trump campaign was in consistent contact with the Kremlin. It puts a whole new light on Trump’s October 2016 tweet: “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.”
Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and former aide to Vice President Quayle, played the new parlor game. Is Pence already toast in Trump World? A nice middle class guy with a handsome family, who really isn’t prepared to wheel and deal with the big boys? “Does this episode strengthen Pence or weaken Pence?” Kristol said, posing that question to the Washington Post. “That’s what everybody is trying to figure out. Pence is trying to play a long game, keeping his head down and keeping his powder dry, assuming some of the more flamboyant types will blow up or blow out and he will be there as a trusted counselor a year or so from now. The long game can mislead you. If you end up keeping your powder dry and never using it, you end up being just another guy in the White House.”
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough observed this morning, “I can tell you every senator and congressman on Capitol Hill would rather have Mike Pence as president than Donald Tump.”
And the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger writes today, “Unless Team Trump gets back to the basics of the 2016 election, 1974 could return ... A president’s blood is in the water and another White House staff can only look out the windows as the sharks arrive.”
Ahhh, yes, the long game. Pence has played the long game before and has done it well. It took him only a few years after entering Congress in 2001 to find himself in conference leadership. He challenged John Boehner for the speakership, lost, and ended up in the No. 3 position. He stared down Mitch Daniels in 2011 when both pondered the 2012 presidential race, and ended up with a clear path to the gubernatorial nomination.
The challenge for Vice President Pence today is this is not a George Bush White House. The Trump outfit is a mix of Network, Mad Max, Alice in Wonderland and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. It’s like playing chess on mushrooms or acid. There’s no precedent, no logical org chart. This is President Wingin’ It. There is method and madness, though no apparent method to the madness that most of the rest of us can figure out.
And there have been an array of vice presidents – from our own Thomas Riley Marshall, to John Nance Garner, to Henry Wallace to Richard Nixon – who either fell out of favor with the president or were belittled and ignored. It can be a tough game. Manipulative presidents like the Roosevelts view vice presidents as either collateral assets or political flotsam.
A White House source described Pence in the wake of the Flynn fiasco as “a very forgiving man.” In Trump World, that is probably not an asset.
So we’ll all watch to see what President Trump thinks of Vice President Pence on Monday, no, Tuesday, no, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. When Saturday comes around, will it be who’s that stupid clown in the bathroom mirror (yes, I’m quoting a Kurt Vile song here). A neutered vice president in Trump World is not an unfathomable stretch.
But in the Pence long, long, long game – hanging in there, talking inevitable the insults and barbs, keeping his head out of the line of circular fire – could have the ultimate historical payoff. Will the Trump White House become so scandal-ridden that if Democrats take control of Congress in 2018, the impeachment proceedings go on the fast track? Will Trump grow tired of the inert Congress, his foreign hotels getting bombed, his family accessory lines getting kicked out of loser chains like Sears and Kmart, and say in 2018, “Hey, f— this. I’m outta here.”
In that long game, the end result is President Pence, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even after a couple of years of abuse, Mike Pence would be in control.