INDIANAPOLIS – During a hot July four years ago,  Donald Trump rescued then Indiana Gov. Mike Pence from what many believed would be a career-ending loss to John Gregg. And now, four years hence, it is Vice President Pence who is tied inextricably to the flagging fortunes of America’s most conspicuous pandemic victim, President Trump.

Vice presidents must become team players, echoing their boss. But what Vice President Pence faces now is a pandemic that is becoming the gravest crisis facing the nation since World War II. The emerging consensus is that with Pence at the helm of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the federal response has been botched. It took Trump nearly two critical months to acknowledge this health crisis wasn’t a “hoax” dreamed up by Democrats and the news media. The federal response has been punted to the 50 states in what every other country has deemed to be a national crisis.

With U.S. deaths approaching 140,000 in just five months, on Tuesday, Italy reported 114 new cases, Germany 276, and the United States 67,400.

At critical junctures, Pence has misled the American people. In an April 24 interview with Geraldo Rivera, he said, “If you look at the trends today, that I think by Memorial Day weekend we will have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.”

On June 15 in a conference call with governors, Pence urged them to reopen their economies, telling them to “encourage people with the news that we’re safely reopening the country.” He dismissed the notion of community spread. “The president often talks about embers,” Pence said, adding that “despite a mass increase in testing, we are still averaging roughly 20,000 cases a day, which is significantly down from six weeks ago.”

On June 16 in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pence wrote: “In recent days, the media has taken to sounding the alarm bells over a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections. Such panic is overblown. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy. We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future. That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fear- mongering.”

This past week, Pence has been trying to convince Americans that it is safe for schools to reopen. “Getting our kids back into schools is the right thing to do academically, but it’s also the right thing to do for our children,” Pence said at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, where 30 football players had to be quarantined due to a COVID outbreak.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been universally panned, with 67% in an ABC/Ipsos Poll disapproving of his leadership; 71% of U.S. parents polled in an Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index say it’d be risky to send children back to school in the fall.

While Lake County’s 16 districts will fully reopen, Washington Township MSD in Indy and Portage schools have opted for a virtual format, Warren Township MSD is delaying its school year by two weeks, while Elkhart and Fort Wayne schools are giving parents options for in-person or online instruction.

The Hill analyzed: “The coronavirus is spreading at ever-faster rates in a broad array of states, putting the U.S. on the precipice of an explosion of illness that threatens to overwhelm the nation’s health care system.” CNN analyzed: “There is no plan. As the U.S. plunges into an ever deeper coronavirus morass, setting record new infection rates and the death curve begins to rise again, there’s no prospect of the nightmare ending for months. Delusion dominates an administration that perversely claims the United States is the world leader in beating this modern day plague.”

This comes as medical systems are becoming overwhelmed in Sunbelt states that heeded Trump and Pence’s urging to reopen their economies without achieving CDC guidelines for doing so.

John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” said this week that “the most important lesson of 1918, one that all the working groups on pandemic planning agreed upon: Tell the truth. That instruction is built into the federal pandemic preparedness plans and the plan for every state and territory.”

When that trust was violated in 1918 in a number of communities, Barry explained, “Trust in authority disintegrated, and at its core, society is based on trust. Not knowing whom or what to believe, people also lost trust in one another. They became alienated, isolated. Intimacy was destroyed.”

And that’s where America stands today, politically divided over a concept as simple as wearing a face mask to protect those nearby. I’ve witnessed this divide repeatedly in my travels between Nashville and Indianapolis. In blue areas, Hoosiers are wearing masks; in red areas, not so much.

Peter Nichols writing in The Atlantic, said that while Donald Trump rescued Pence from a possible defeat in 2016, it may be Pence who will bail out Trump in 2020. “Their fates, at this point, are wholly entwined,” Nichols writes. “Pence would have trouble winning in 2024 if voters repudiate Trump in November. Yet even if he runs after a second Trump term, he’d surely be tarnished by the rolling tragedies of 2020. For three years, Pence largely sidestepped Trump’s unending dramas. Not so with the pandemic. Trump pulled Pence from the bubble wrap and plunked him into a crisis, making him the head of the coronavirus task force overwhelmed by COVID-19’s relentless spread.

“Now Pence is forever tied to the government’s botched response,” Nichols continued. “And that’s something he’ll need to defend and explain as the current campaign ramps up, and if he ever runs for the higher office he’s long prized. If there’s an organizing theme to Pence’s vice presidency, it’s that he must never offend a man whose emotional antennae quiver at any slight. That means he’s perennially validating a president who insists the pandemic is under control when reality screams that it’s not.”

Pence’s Trump administration portfolio has been troubled. Trump and Jared Kusher handed Pence the presidential transition the day after the election (after tossing Gov. Chris Christie’s transition binders in a Trump Tower dumpster) and that’s when the Russian probe seeds were sown that defined the first two years of the Trump presidency.

In March 2017 after insisting there was massive vote fraud, Trump charged Pence with heading the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. By the time it disbanded just months later, Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap echoed sentiments by another commission member, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, saying, the effort was “glaringly empty,” adding, “It’s calling into the darkness, looking for voter fraud. There’s no real evidence of it anywhere.”

On the plus side, Pence did successfully launch the U.S. Space Force.

While Mike and Karen Pence have deemed running for reelection a paramount component to his political future, the more savvy move would have the vice president begging off the ticket. That would save him from Trump’s culture wars that have entered racist territory (i.e. defending the Confederate flag and statues; his “white power” video retweet; his equating the Black Lives Matter movement to “new far-left fascism”) in what will likely be the nastiest campaign this century. GOP Senate candidates this cycle are touching none of those hot buttons.

At this writing, Trump and Pence are facing a landslide loss. That could change if this cycle’s “October surprise” includes a coronavirus vaccine and a distinct jobs rebound. But right now, all signs are pointing to a tumultuous autumn of second economic shutdowns and school closures. The science will prove or disprove the notion of safely reopened schools and universities, and the viability of college and pro sports by Labor Day.

Losing vice presidents don’t do well on their own, as Richard Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore can attest. Aside from HHH’s taint from the Vietnam War (which cost 58,000 American lives), none of them faced the pandemic millstone that is Pence’s legacy. Look no further than former Vice President Dan Quayle, who was actually the more effective campaigner during President George H.W. Bush’s failed reelection bid in 1992. When Quayle entered the 2000 presidential race, he found virtually no traction and quickly faded.

After Pence delivered his Republican National Convention acceptance speech in Cleveland four years ago, I observed in the July 21, 2016, edition of HPI: “The Indiana RNC delegation, once decidedly anti-Trump, has come around to the Trump/Pence ticket. Most have signed on for the favorite son. But make no mistake, how this all ends, whether it is on Nov. 9 if the ticket loses, or into what will almost certainly be a controversial presidency if he wins, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Mike Pence has entered the twilight zone.” 

Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana.