FORT WAYNE – Regardless of what happens next in his life, the last four years have been a remarkable experience for Vice President Mike Pence. There have been 48 vice presidents in U.S. history. Former Vice President Joe Biden will become only the third to be elected to the office since Abraham Lincoln (the other two were Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). The others first achieved office through the death of a president. In other words, being vice president is not a safe ticket to the presidency.

However, Vice President Pence was unique among vice presidents. Most vice presidents had roles similar to the colorful description given the position by former powerful House Speaker James Garner that it “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” In other words, even powerful figures on Capitol Hill like Garner and later Lyndon Baines Johnson, watched that power be sapped away by aggressive presidents with clear agendas and a cadre of individuals who understood government and how to utilize its power as a team. 

President Trump had some potential problems from the very beginning. He was clear on a few things he wanted; for example, a wall along the entire southern border, withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of no more foreign wars, limitations on free trade, and an emphasis on nationalism not internationalism.

As the campaign progressed, Trump flip-flopped his social positions in making a “deal” for the votes of social conservatives. Those issues became identified with Trump even though he had actually previously been a liberal on most of them. Very liberal on key ones, in fact. But he was malleable on those issues for votes. 

On economic issues, conservatism is more divided. For example, on trade, traditional manufacturing interests have long favored a variety of protectionist positions. Sometimes those issues are aligned with military interests, as we learned that fickle allies or enemies can disrupt our military security. On the other hand, many businesses are dependent upon international trade, including some manufacturing interests. For example, in Indiana we are both the largest producer of American steel and one of the largest producers of American-made transportation vehicles, yet also the home of worldwide trade leaders Eli Lilly, the orthopedics industry, and in agriculture.

All conservatives believe lower taxes are good, and all believe in less regulation of business than anyone who credibly calls themselves a liberal. However, positions on the relative importance of spending controls widely vary. In the real world, most conservative voters seldom really care about deficits. They do generally want to control government spending on social welfare programs (not including such things as Social Security, Medicare, or student loans which are the largest amounts of social spending and debt obligations).  

Beyond that, disagreements dominate issues like defense spending, highway funding, agriculture support, and almost everything else. Trump, beyond an occasional loud verbal protest so he could switch political blame to Congress, used the veto less than almost anyone before him. His battles on spending were not, in most cases, really about money but trying to build a wall or some sort of other special goal of his. He traded debt for his special projects. This was his call, not Mike Pence’s, but Pence did influence many economic decisions.

President Trump had a cadre of activist supporters, but they were mostly verbal firebombers, not people with any experience about how to accomplish his goals. His “team” mostly consisted of crowds riled up by simplistic rhetoric that remained as simplistic after four years in office as it was when Trump ran for office. It was as if he seldom read briefing books or absorbed many facts. There was no nuance. 

Ronald Reagan, at times, used simplistic examples and even marginal facts to convey a thematic point. So, for that matter, did Presidents Clinton and Obama. Reagan, however, had a proven track record as a reader and writer. And Reagan developed followers committed to the message principles he delivered over and over. Not to mention that Reagan had twice been elected governor of America’s largest state. Reagan understood both the critical importance of rhetoric, and the necessity of trade-offs to advance principles.

Mike Pence knew all of these things about Trump when he sought the vice presidency. He made a deal. Obviously, he did not approve of the president’s tone and style. Actually, Donald Trump was the opposite of almost every moral principle that Mike Pence has ever stood for; Mike treated people kindly, he didn’t go around abusing them. He disagreed agreeably. People didn’t like him for his policies, but he was nice. He was respectful of minorities. He listened reasonably well, though also was very principled.

Mike Pence was, and is, ambitious. People who aren’t ambitious don’t become a congressman, governor and never vice president. But had Mike’s life been pure ambition, standing reasonably firm on questions related to homosexuality was not smart politics. Or abortion. While social conservatism as a whole is a solid minority in the Republican Party, it is not a “moral majority” nor is it anything close to a majority of all Americans when taken as a package. Being pro-life is one thing, which is a near majority. But add that to gay rights, pornography, gambling, the importance of sexual abstinence outside traditional marriage, and other issues and it is not a great political cause to be how you are identified. It is a principled policy: Not a politically driven one. And, furthermore, the political value of these issues ebb and flow, and currently are on the ebbing side.

In other words, Pence had ambitions but not unlimited ambition. So, what did he trade? Basically, silence on criticizing the president. Essentially, he neutered himself to many as a voice on personal conduct in office,  not just the president’s personal life or flat-out misstatements. But also on Trump’s tone on issue after issue. Many policy questions that relate to personal moral accountability (e.g. conflicts of interest, special favors) require transparency. People were regularly personally trashed, including many conservatives who had been friends of VP Pence, but silence meant not publicly contradicting the president when reputations were besmirched.

In return, Mike Pence became the actual president on many issues. My assumption (none of this is based upon any conversation with him or anyone who worked with him in the White House) is that several important traits of Mike came into play. He doesn’t like to criticize others publicly (which tailored quite nicely with not criticizing Trump) and secondly, he knows how to manipulate through praise and identifying what another person desires.

For example, Pence clearly ran educational policy. Mike has a vision on the subject, a long consistent vision. He had allies such as the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who could implement it with an ideological team. It is easy to understand how he could win Trump’s support: “Mr. president, the teacher’s unions detest you. They are the core of the Democrat Party. We need to weaken their monopoly support. Plus your base will love it.”

For example, Pence clearly ran health care policy. The president said he would get rid of Obamacare. But clearly Trump didn’t even know what that meant, other than getting rid of the individual mandate. The President didn’t like detail. Mike, and more importantly, his allies liked details. Hoosiers like Alex Azar and Seema Verma staffed key positions in the agency. 

For example, Pence was the internal advocate of conservative court appointments. Does anyone seriously think the president knew the Federalist Society well enough to call them up to provide a list of prospective nominees? Pence could show how this could benefit the president politically. There were plenty of allies inside the White House on this subject, including later scorned AG Jeff Sessions, but none were vice president and likely few, other than former Pence pollster Kellyanne Conway, knew how to sell the ideas to the president.

Finally, Pence was clearly influential on most foreign policy issues, especially on Israel. In fact, Trump reversed his position on Israel and the Palestinians. It was probably easy for a skilled persuader like Mike Pence to link the president to Prime Minister Netanyahu. I personally doubt that the vice president was on board with Trump on all foreign policy issues (e.g. Afghanistan, Trump’s skepticism about 9/11) but on many, Mike Pence was similar to the president (e.g. China). In foreign policy, far too many people influence it for any one person to control it, but Mike Pence influenced those issues on which he cared about the most.

It has been a bumpy ride for the vice president, but regardless of what happens in the future, effectively, on many of his issues, Mike Pence has already functioned as president of the United States because of the trade-offs he made. One can argue whether the trade-offs were worth it, even without knowing how much his calming influence on the president saved us from who knows what other damage, but the fact is that Mike Pence may have been one of the most powerful vice presidents this nation has ever had.

Souder is a former Republican congressman from Indiana.