Mike Pence didn’t endorse Donald Trump in the primaries. Instead, he gave Ted Cruz the weakest endorsement in the history of endorsements and then, a few months later, agreed to be Trump’s running mate. And he’s never looked back.
Even when events have given him reason to. Last weekend, for instance, Pence took a tongue lashing from Dick Cheney for the Trump administration’s foreign policy, which Cheney compared to Barack Obama’s. It’s enough to make you wonder why the guy does it.
It isn’t as though his status as president of the Senate is keeping him on the reservation. He’ll have spent Trump’s entire first term with a solid Republican majority and very few opportunities to be the tie-breaking vote. (He’s only had to do it 13 times to date.)
And if Pence thinks his loyalty to Trump guarantees a two-way street, well, he hasn’t been paying attention—either to Trump’s business practices or his staff or the rumors that the president is looking for a way to drop him from the ticket.
The most likely explanation is that Pence at one point believed that he stood a fair chance to assume the presidency should Trump be impeached. But that possibility—always a long shot—has now dwindled.
Another possibility is that Pence sees himself as next in line once the Republican party comes crashing down around Trump’s ankles. He has conservative bona fides as a pre-Trump Republican governor and congressman, deep ties to evangelical voters, and unimpeachable street cred with Trump’s base.
He’s like Trump World’s ambassador to normal politics, and if there’s no new Trump after Trump, maybe Republicans will settle for the Great One’s emissary.
The ambassadorial role is the one Pence played this week. Facing the prospect of using the veto for the first time, the White House dispatched Pence to Capitol Hill to woo Republican senators ahead of the national emergency vote. He failed: While 2 senators who had been cinch “yes” votes defected at the last minute, 12 Republicans voted to block the president’s emergency declaration.
The emergency declaration will survive to fight another day, thanks to Trump’s veto. But Pence’s hope of one day leading the party probably died with the vote. Far from being able to unite the different factions of the party around the president’s signature issue, the number of Republicans voting against the administration may have increased during Pence’s ministrations. Of the five senators Pence met with before the vote—Tillis, Toomey, Portman, Lee, and Alexander—only Tillis voted against the resolution.
Three more senators from very Trump-friendly states—Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Roy Blunt of Missouri—surprised the administration by voting to block the declaration.
After the run-in with Cheney, Politico observed that Pence had changed since the early days of the Trump administration: “In multiple encounters with Republicans on Capitol Hill, on issues ranging from Syria to the government shutdown, Pence has swallowed his personal views, which have historically been far more in line with the GOP establishment than Trump’s.”
If Pence can’t get Roy Blunt, a member of Republican leadership, to vote the party line, how does he expect to lead the party?
If he can’t say what he thinks, even in closed-door meetings with other officials, why would he want to?