Mike Pence may have figured things out.
The former vice president of the United States, Columbus native and onetime Indiana governor took aim at the man who had been his boss for four years, Donald Trump, during a speech at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C.
Pence’s aim was true.
“History will hold Donald Trump accountable for Jan. 6,” Pence told those gathered at one of the great gatherings of America’s power structure. “Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way. President Trump was wrong. His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.”
His words sent shock waves through the nation’s political firmament. Not since the days of John Nance Garner and Franklin D. Roosevelt had a vice president broken so significantly with his erstwhile commander-in-chief.
But Pence was right to do so.
Pence is mulling over a run for the presidency in 2024. Trump already is a declared candidate for the office.
That means the two men will be rivals, not allies. Pence will have to make a case for his candidacy.
He could do what other potential Republican contenders — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis comes to mind — and say he would be a president like Trump, only less so. DeSantis’ argument for his contemplated candidacy can be boiled down to a single sentence: “I will govern the way Donald Trump did, only without the mean tweets and the outlandish behavior.”
In other words, DeSantis would provide a more civil form of authoritarianism.
That never has been Pence’s style.
His political philosophy always has been libertarian until his libertarian impulses come into conflict with his religious faith. Then, he veers hard toward theocracy.
He is not, contrary to what his critics think, a man without a backbone. He will take a firm, unpopular stand when a sense of justice animates him.
Years ago, when I was the executive director of what is now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, I invited Pence, then a member of Congress, to speak at a youth conference.
Pence surprised everyone by taking issue with a portion of the Patriot Act, which had been rushed into law by Congress and President George W. Bush following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America. Pence said he opposed the noxious “sneak-and-peak” provisions of the bill that allowed for warrantless searches.
It was a brave stand for a junior House member.
There were no votes in that room for him that day. Many of those attending — high school students — weren’t old enough to cast a ballot. The adults who were there, devoted ACLU members, likely were so put off by Pence’s positions on reproductive rights and equal status for LGBTQ citizens that they never would pull a lever for him.
He said what he said because he thought government had overreached and President Bush — a president of his own party — was wrong.
He was right to criticize his own party’s president then.
And he’s right to do so now.
This time, though, his criticism also makes sense politically.
The Republican presidential candidates who think they have a shot at reaching the White House by presenting themselves as paler versions of Trump are making a fundamental miscalculation. Trump’s base won’t settle for an imitation as long as the real thing is a viable option.
The only path to the Oval Office for a Republican runs through Donald Trump, not behind or beside him.
That means someone in the GOP is going to have to demonstrate that his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection makes Trump unfit to serve as president again.
That’s what Pence is doing.
In doing so, he’s showing his fellow Republicans the only route they have back to power. Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 and 2020 by increasing margins and likely will fall even shorter next time, should he be the GOP nominee.
Mike Pence hasn’t just consulted his conscience. He’s also run the numbers. And that’s helped him figure things out.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students, where this commentary originally appeared. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected]