Chief Justice Roberts (left) and Vice President Pence with Chief of Staff Mulvaney and Jared Kushner during stalled shutdown talks on Saturday.
Chief Justice Roberts (left) and Vice President Pence with Chief of Staff Mulvaney and Jared Kushner during stalled shutdown talks on Saturday.

WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence is the Hoosier with the highest profile in Washington, but in 2019, the most influential person from Indiana likely will be Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

Just before Thanksgiving, Roberts had an enough-is-enough moment when it came to President Donald Trump’s repeated bashing of federal judges who hand down decisions that contradict his policies. “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a Nov. 21 statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”

Trump wielded the cudgel against the federal bench again late Wednesday night, as the White House released a statement criticizing a judge who struck down a Trump administration asylum rule.

Roberts is the steward of an institution that is still willing and able to provide a check and balance to Trump. The Republican-led Congress didn’t offer any resistance during the first half of Trump’s term until late this year, when the Senate rebuked him by passing a resolution implicating Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Roberts is poised to be the court’s swing vote now that conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh has replaced retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Following the fierce battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation – which contributed to the losses of several Democratic Senate incumbents who voted against him, including Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly – polls show that Americans view the high court as another partisan outpost.

Roberts wants to restore the perception that the Supreme Court rises above politics and is an independent arbiter of policy brawls rather than a participant in them. How he goes about this task will help define the last two years of the Trump presidency.

“The Supreme Court has been quiet in the months since Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s wildly polarizing confirmation,” Axios reported on Wednesday. “And that’s how Chief Justice John Roberts seems to want it. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement this summer, Roberts is more in control of the court’s direction than he has ever been.”

Roberts may again be the decisive vote in a ruling on the Affordable Care Act, which was recently struck down by a Texas district judge in a decision sure to be appealed – perhaps all the way to the Roberts Court.

How will Pence’s role evolve?

The primary achievement of the Trump administration so far has been to create uncertainty – from domestic, economic and foreign policy to the constant churning of White House and cabinet personnel. Pence is now getting caught up in this whirlwind, with speculation over the last couple of weeks about whether he will remain on Trump’s ticket in the 2020 election.

A CNBC report on Wednesday said that Pence is safely ensconced as Trump’s running mate and that Pence indicated he’s “ready to defend the administration against a Democratic onslaught.”

If Pence becomes Trump’s election attack dog, it could tarnish Pence’s image as the more stable and able alternative to Trump. But so far, at least publicly, Pence has kept his head down and stayed out of Trump’s way – seemingly in an effort just to get through this administration intact so that Pence can run for president himself.

Rather than trying to rein in Trump’s pugnacious and divisive tendencies or steer the president toward policy victories, Pence has been more of a loyal bystander. That’s good for survival in Trump’s mercurial world. But it diminishes Pence’s gravitas.

In 2019, Pence’s challenge will be to carve out a policy area – or some kind of initiative – that is uniquely his and that he alone brings over the finish line. Space policy, while important, is not that issue. It will take something that has more of an immediate impact on American’s daily lives.

Governance has never been Pence’s strength. He’s always been more comfortable as an avatar of Christian conservatism. But in 2018, Pence didn’t seem to have a good political touch, as Democrats pummeled the GOP in suburban districts to gain more than three dozen House seats and take control of the chamber.

Yes, Republicans added to their Senate majority. But the Trump-and-Pence roadshows helped the party garner only two more seats in an election atmosphere that could not have been more favorable.

Trump’s 2020 re-elect, with an economy that could be stumbling rather than galloping, will be a much tougher slog. Trump may not want to admit it, but he will need Pence’s help to win a second term. 

That means Pence will have to raise his game. 
 
Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.