Incoming Vice President, a Devout Conservative, Has Nuanced Record

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Photo: Zach Dobson / Office of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
Mike Pence

John Nance Garner, a Texan who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president for eight years, famously quipped that the vice presidency was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” At the time, it was hard to argue with him. But in recent years, a string of influential VPs — George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden — has caused many to reevaluate a job that’s long been given little respect.

FDR, who was a state senator and a governor before he became president, may have had little use for old “bucket of warm piss” Garner, but President-elect Donald Trump— arguably the biggest outsider to be sworn into office — will clearly be leaning on his number two, Mike Pence, as he moves into the D.C. “swamp” he pledged to drain.

“He’s clearly going to be active and important because the office of the vice presidency has changed so much in the last 40 years,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and the author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.” “Pence is an insider serving with an outsider president. He has credibility within the GOP, and with members of Congress, so they might feel more comfortable talking to him than to Trump.”

Already, Pence has been credited with quietly patching up the rocky relationship between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), as well as orchestrating some of Trump’s Cabinet picks and helping to close the deal with Carrier to keep hundreds of jobs in Indiana.

Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs who has known Pence for more than two decades, said that the key to any VP’s success is developing a close relationship with the president. “Some develop great relationships with the president while others may as well go fishing,” he said. “I see Pence in the former group; Trump’s not going to cede control to him but he’ll be relying on Pence’s D.C. experience.”

Pence’s Record

Michael Richard Pence, 57, is an Indiana native who served six terms in Congress before being elected as governor of the Hoosier State in 2012. He’s a fiscal conservative who has long championed lower taxes and less government spending. Pence is considered a mainstream conservative Republican — especially compared to Trump — who, like most in his party, has embraced free trade, voted for the war in Iraq and supports increased military spending and strengthening NATO. But Pence has also taken some principled stands, opposing key elements of George W. Bush’s domestic agenda, like the No Child Left Behind education law and a plan to subsidize prescription drugs for seniors. He also clearly has an independent streak, frequently pointing out that he’s a “Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

Pence is also a social conservative who staunchly opposes abortion rights and has angered the LGBTQ community for opposing gay marriage and legislation that would expand their rights and protections.

The vice president-elect, now leading Trump’s transition team, appeared to thrive most in Indiana when he focused on jobs. Pence cut taxes while boosting the budget surplus and investing in education and infrastructure initiatives. On the flip side, he seemed to run afoul of voters on both the left and right when he waded into LGBTQ/religious liberty issues, first championing a bill that many believe could have given businesses an excuse to deny services to gays and lesbians, before supporting a watered-down version of the legislation that angered conservatives.

Only time will tell how Pence’s experience and principles will shape his actions in Washington, but as he’s preparing to assume the heartbeat-away job, it’s worth taking a walk down the winding path that led Mike Pence to the vice presidency.

Early Upbringing

Pence grew up with five siblings in an Irish-Catholic household in Columbus, a charming community of 44,000 nicknamed the “Athens of the Prairie” that boasts a stunning 19th-century courthouse, a host of turn-of-the-century homes and Zaharakos, one of the nation’s oldest intact soda fountains. Pence’s grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley, immigrated to the United States from his native Ireland through Ellis Island in 1923 and later found work as a bus driver in Chicago.

According to a 1994 profile in the Indianapolis Business Journal, Pence’s father Edward was a veteran who later became an executive at a (now bankrupt) oil distributorship that ran gas stations. Mike Pence says that his mother Nancy, who is now 83, held the family together after her husband died of a heart attack in 1988, and he praised her for obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995 at the age of 62.

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Photo: Office of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Flickr
Vice President-elect Mike Pence often touts his economic record as Indiana governor. Here, Gov. Pence, fourth from left, and Shelbyville Mayor Tom DeBaun join executives from Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., Japan's largest steel producer, as the company announces plans to establish operations in Shelbyville, Ind., creating up to 70 new jobs by 2021.

Pence was a gregarious kid and a good talker — he finished second in the nation at the National Forensic League’s annual extemporaneous speech competition at 18 — which should come as no surprise to those who watched his calm, unflappable performance in the vice presidential debate, where he repeatedly batted away questions about Trump controversies, skillfully pivoting to topics he preferred to dwell on.

Pence’s family wasn’t political, and he says that his early heroes were John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He served as a youth coordinator for the local Democratic Party at 15 and says he voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980. He applied to Catholic University and reportedly considered joining the priesthood, but elected to enroll at Hanover College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana, where he majored in history.

Political Rebirth

A 2013 profile in Indianapolis Monthly magazine asserted that Pence went through a political and spiritual transformation some time after his Carter vote while at Hanover. He became a born-again evangelical Christian and started to embrace the bedrock conservative principle of limited government after G.M. Curtis, his constitutional and legal history professor, turned him on to studying texts authored by the Founding Fathers. Professor Curtis, now retired, has stayed in touch with Pence since he was one of his students in the 1980-81 academic year, but told The Diplomat that he doubts his class transformed Pence.

“You can’t draw too much significance from what someone thought or did when they were 20 years old,” he said.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Pence spent two years traveling around Indiana, working as an admissions representative for his alma mater. He was accepted at Indiana University’s School of Law on his second try, found a job at a firm specializing in corporate law and became active in Republican Party politics. Pence met his wife Karen, an elementary school teacher, in the parking lot of their church. They married in 1985 and have three grown children: Michael, 24, a Marine Corps officer, Charlotte, 22, an aspiring filmmaker, and Audrey, 21, a student at Hanover College.

In 1988, at 29, Pence ran for Congress. He lost a close election but got an education in retail politics on the road, cycling 261 miles across the state to meet voters. Pence lost again in 1990 in a campaign that was nasty, particularly by collegial Midwestern standards, and later penned an unusually candid essay about the debacle titled “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.” (He was also dinged for using campaign money to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses, which was legal then but not now.)

After a stint as the president of a think tank in Indiana, he dove into talk radio, becoming the host of a popular talk show broadcast on 19 stations around the state.

His politics were undeniably conservative but he insisted on polite discourse —  something of a rarity in the world of conservative talk radio — once describing his show as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”

Standout in Washington

Pence ran for Congress again in 2000, won and was re-elected five times to the House before running successfully for governor of Indiana in 2012. The Pences moved to Arlington, Va., in 2001, but he kept up his hobbies — drawing cartoons and doing impersonations —  and continued to drive a red pickup truck to Capitol Hill, usually wearing short-sleeve button-down shirts that made him stand out in buttoned-up D.C.

“He went to Washington but never became a person of Washington,” Lenkowsky said. “He remained true to his principles.”

His voting record was reliably conservative and he was something of a deficit and spending hawk, voting against a $700 billion financial rescue in 2008, for example. His refusal to approve aid money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts without significant cuts to programs such as Medicaid and tax credits for the poor annoyed some in the Republican leadership but earned him respect among fiscal conservatives, who lauded him for trying to offset new spending with budget cuts.

But he also went against the conservative grain. In 2006, citing his own immigrant roots, Pence unveiled what he called a “middle ground” compromise on immigration reform that conservatives derided as amnesty for illegal immigrants. (His Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act, which would’ve strengthened border security and sent illegal immigrants home but allowed many to come back under a guest-worker program, went nowhere.)

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Photo: Office of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Flickr
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, first lady Karen Pence and their family join race fans from around the world for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Pence met his wife Karen, an elementary school teacher, in the parking lot of their church. They married in 1985 and have three grown children: Michael, 24, a Marine Corps officer, Charlotte, 22, an aspiring filmmaker, and Audrey, 21, a student at Hanover College.

“He rose in the Republican leadership but he maintained a kind of independence,” Lenkowsky said. “He wasn’t a go-along-to-get-along guy.”

When he returned to the Hoosier State to run for governor, he emphasized jobs and education, campaigning based on a “road map” for Indiana that prioritized vocational education to improve the employability of the state’s workforce, among other things. Pence boasts about the state’s AAA bond rating and declining unemployment rate during his tenure. (It went from 8.4 percent when he took office to about 5 percent now, mirroring a nationwide trend.)

He cut corporate income taxes and business personal property taxes to spur economic development. At the same time, advocates for low-income families point out that Pence voted against raising the minimum wage and that wages in the state remain below the national average.

Some of Pence’s positions, however, defy easy partisan categorization. For instance, he expanded the state’s coverage of Medicaid but included a provision that required participants to contribute to the cost of their care.

Pence didn’t gain much national attention, however, until he signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that some believe could have allowed businesses to deny services to members of the LGBTQ community under the guise of a religious objection.

After a national firestorm, including threatened boycotts of the state, he worked together with the state legislature to “fix” the bill, attempting to ensure that it didn’t diminish civil rights protections for gays and lesbians. This time, conservatives were outraged, insisting that Pence had betrayed his conservative principles, essentially caving under the national media spotlight.

Conservative Appeal, Progressive Backlash

Analysts believe that Trump tapped Pence for the VP slot for a number of reasons. He may have liked the idea of bringing in someone whose cool and calm demeanor stood in stark contrast to his own, someone who wouldn’t hog the limelight but would hopefully be effective behind the scenes. Trump clearly wanted someone with executive experience running a state, along with the business-friendly bona fides Pence brought to the ticket. And Pence gave the thrice-married Trump much-needed credibility with evangelical voters, who have long been a critical component of the GOP base.

While there’s no way to say exactly what Pence’s presence on the ticket did for Trump, a look at Indiana’s electoral maps from 2008 versus 2016 is emblematic of the problems Hillary Clinton faced across the industrial Midwest. Barack Obama won the Hoosier State in 2008 but Trump/Pence carried it by 19 points, as they flipped a host of counties that had supported Obama like Madison (60 percent for Trump) and Vermillion (65 percent).

But while Pence’s spot on the ticket may have reassured some, it alarmed others on the left, particularly abortion rights and LGBTQ activists. Jeremy Scahill, in a piece titled, “Mike Pence Will Be the Most Powerful Christian Supremacist in U.S. History” for the Intercept, opined that Pence should be regarded as “even more terrifying than the president-elect.” Scahill and many other progressives have cited Pence’s alleged support for gay conversion therapy as evidence that he’s a dangerous, far-right zealot on social issues. But Pence’s defenders deny that he has ever supported conversion therapy and insist that the evidence to suggest he did is flimsy at best.

The evidence cited by Pence critics is a bullet point from his 2000 campaign website that read, “Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” It’s not clear whether Pence wrote this or any of the dozens of other bullet points on the site, and it’s also unclear whether the “behaviors” in question refer broadly to the gay lifestyle or simply unprotected sex — gay or straight.

Pence has also drawn criticism for his efforts to block abortions. In the week after the election, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and other liberal advocacy groups received a windfall of donations. According to the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets, 20,000 people made donations to Planned Parenthood in the name of Pence to protest his opposition to abortion rights. In addition to slashing funding for Planned Parenthood in his state, Pence has pushed several controversial anti-abortion laws. In March, he signed a bill that banned abortions based solely on a fetus’s disability, genetic anomaly, sex or race. A federal judge overturned the disability or genetic anomaly provision of the bill in June, but upheld the ban on abortions based on sex or race. (Rumors that Pence supported a law that mandates funerals for aborted fetuses are not accurate.)

Lenkowsky said that while Pence is clearly more conservative than Trump on social issues like gay marriage (which Trump has expressed passive support for but Pence has opposed), Pence won’t be setting the agenda as vice president. “The job of the VP is to help the president achieve their policy objectives, not set their own agenda,” he said.

The ‘Hamilton’ Imbroglio

An incident at the Broadway show “Hamilton” two weeks after the election neatly illustrated both the concerns progressives have about the new administration and the reality that Pence and Trump’s temperamental divide is probably greater than their ideological divide. With Pence, his wife and children in attendance at the show, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the hit musical, chastened Pence from the stage after the show, saying, “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

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Photo: Office of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Flickr
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence celebrate the opening day of the 2016 Indiana State Fair, commemorating the state's bicentennial. An Indiana native, Pence grew up with five siblings in a Irish-Catholic household in Columbus, a charming community of 44,000 nicknamed the "Athens of the Prairie."

Trump took to Twitter to decry Dixon’s statement and the fact that Pence was jeered by members of the audience, insisting “this should not happen,” while demanding an apology from the cast. But Pence later said the boos were “what freedom sounded like” and insisted that he wasn’t offended by Dixon’s speech. Pence added, “I know this is a very disappointing time for people that did not see their candidate win in this national election. I know this is a very anxious time for some people, and I just want to reassure people that what President-elect Donald Trump said on election night, he absolutely meant from the bottom of his heart. He is preparing to be the president of all of the people of the United States of America.”

Curtis said Pence’s response to the “Hamilton” incident exemplifies the type of person he is and his understanding of the Constitution. “He understands that government needs to protect liberty, not control behavior.”

Key Player

However the Trump-Pence relationship evolves, it’s hard to imagine Pence being anything other than a key player in the new administration. In 1974, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote about the rapport between the vice president and president, arguing that, “Mistrust is inherent in the relationship. The Vice President has only one serious thing to do: that is, to wait around for the President to die. This is hardly the basis for cordial and enduring friendships.”

Goldstein of Saint Louis University argues that much has changed since then, as the vice presidency has evolved from a largely ceremonial post — simply presiding over the Senate, breaking ties when necessary — to serving an integral advisory function in the executive branch. He says that the VP role first took on more prominence, particularly in terms of foreign affairs, in 1953 with Richard Nixon and fully evolved into a critical partner-advisor relationship under Jimmy Carter, who gave Walter Mondale access to all the same meetings and information that he had and treated him as a key member of his team.

Goldstein points out that of the 44 presidents in U.S. history, nine were VPs who took power when presidents died (eight times) or resigned (Nixon). And five other vice presidents (most recently George H.W. Bush) were elected president after serving full terms in the role, so one-third of all U.S. presidents previously served as vice president. Does this mean Pence now has a leg up to be the GOP nominee in 2024 or sooner if Trump doesn’t run in 2020?

“Pence’s chances of being elected president are clearly greater [as vice president] than they would have been as governor of Indiana,” Goldstein said. “That doesn’t mean in 2020 or 2024 he ends up being the guy, but he’ll be in the conversation if he wants to be. He goes to the head of the class.”

Goldstein said it’s extremely difficult to predict what sort of influence Pence will have on Trump.

“The role the VP plays will end up being dictated by their strengths and the president’s weaknesses, and what the president wants them to do,” he said.

Lenkowsky thinks that Pence’s foreign policy instincts are probably closer to the Dick Cheney wing of the GOP than the internationalists from Bush 41’s administration. But he adds that Pence’s role will be more similar to the roles Biden and Gore played, rather than Cheney’s agenda-setting tenure.

Curtis, Pence’s history professor, refused to speculate on what kind of vice president his former pupil will be or what he’ll focus on, insisting that we’ll all have to simply wait and see.

“Anyone who thinks they know what’s going to happen is kidding themselves,” he said.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on January 4, 2017

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