The Political Notebook 11.3.23
The country owes Pence a lot, but he deserves his political pariah status. Haley seems the only candidate with a shot, however long, to make the GOP more than a Trump vanity project.
In exiting the presidential race, Mike Pence said that it became evident that this was not his time.
His time will never come. Pence’s political career is as dead as a political career can be.
As Pence fades into political irrelevancy, it’s worth noting that the country has not fully appreciated or acknowledged how much we owe him for refusing to play his allotted part in Donald Trump’s attempted coup after losing the 2020 election.
I get frustrated when sensible and pragmatic conservatives, such as the Wall Street Journal editorialists, get dismissive about the seriousness of the coup attempt. Our democratic institutions and system of checks and balances held, goes the thought. The courts threw out phony claims. Congress duly certified the result. Joe Biden was inaugurated and assumed office on the prescribed schedule. Trump behaved badly, but alarm over the threat to democracy has been overwrought, is the proffered conclusion.
How near-run an event it actually was is best demonstrated by the following thought experiment: What if Pence had done what Trump asked and unilaterally rejected the Electoral College votes of enough states to keep Biden from being certified as the winner?
The courts may have ultimately sorted things out and put Biden in the White House. But, even when operating expeditiously, courts take time to render decisions. In the meantime, it is very possible, even likely, that extensive political violence would have erupted throughout the country – making the storming of the Capitol by Trump’s MAGA cultists seem like the leisurely stroll by peaceful tourists MAGA revisionists are trying to transmogrify it into.
The principal reason our democratic institutions and system of checks and balances seemed to hold without undue stress was because of Mike Pence. That should never be forgotten about the man.
That acknowledged, he had spent the better part of five years as a Trump enabler, facilitator, and apologist. He deserves his fate as a political pariah – regarded as a traitor by MAGA forces and as an unconscionable bootlicker by those who find Trump the politician repulsive and dangerous.
In an attempt to create a place for himself in the presidential race, Pence gave a speech in which he posited that the Republican Party was at a crossroads, required to choose between being the party of Ronald Reagan’s traditional conservatism, or the party of populist nationalism.
However, when Pence signed up to be Trump’s head cheerleader in 2016, it was clear that Trump was no Reaganesque traditional conservative. There were some important conservative advancements in Trump’s term, such as conservative judges, a sharp reduction in the corporate income tax rate, and regulatory restraint and rollback. But, from the beginning, Trump himself was clearly a populist nationalist, hellbent on reshaping the Republican Party in his image, which he has successfully done.
Pence captures in microcosm the Faustian bargain the GOP as a whole has entered into with Trump.
It’s unwise to make confident political proclamations this far in advance of even a single voter having cast a ballot. That duly noted, it does seem that the alternative-to-Trump primary has unofficially narrowed to Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. And that only Haley has a shot, however long, at besting Trump and beginning the rehabilitation of the GOP brand.
From the beginning, DeSantis has run as Trump’s heir, every bit as MAGA and anti-woke as Trump, maybe even more so. His case to be the preferred MAGA candidate over Trump was competence and electability.
The competence case was never going to gain traction. DeSantis has delivered on much of what GOP primary voters are looking for in Florida. But Trump also did so as president, a much bigger and more important stage.
There’s reason to doubt that a Trump second term would be as productive. He’s unlikely to be able to attract the competent tacticians who were able to get things accomplished despite the chaos Trump was creating at the top. And there is every indication that Trump won’t even attempt to recruit them in a second term. He regularly disparages those who were willing to put up with him, at least in stretches, in the first term. A second Trump term is highly likely to be unproductive chaos start to finish.
That, however, is too much inside-baseball speculation for DeSantis to make a convincing case to MAGA voters to ditch Trump in favor of him on the basis of competence.
Because DeSantis is running full-MAGA, he has picked up the MAGA stench in a general election matchup. He’s not running any better than Trump against Joe Biden in early polling. While early polling should be discounted substantially, DeSantis doesn’t seem to have left himself a path to improving his general election prospects. DeSantis hasn’t attempted a coup. But he has thrown his lot in with a movement that believes that one was justified.
This is not a full-throated endorsement of Haley, about whom there are also serious reservations. She did a stint as a Trump sycophant as his U.N. ambassador. Even today, she treats the attempted 2020 coup less as a moral offense than as a political problem regarding Trump’s electability.
She’s embraced the idiotic idea of taking military action within territorial Mexico, saying she would dispatch special ops forces there to dismantle fentanyl operations.
In the first place, this is unlikely to make a dent in the fentanyl trade. Fentanyl production isn’t a capital intensive enterprise. If one facility is destroyed, a replacement is easily set up.
The drug cartels are extensive and deep. A special ops force isn’t going to assassinate enough of them to matter.
And if attempted at a large enough scale to matter, it would become known, resetting U.S.-Mexico relations back to the 1840s. It would extinguish any ability to gain Mexico’s cooperation on anything that might actually make a difference, with respect to drugs or immigration.
Still, Haley isn’t running as Trump’s heir. She is running, at least in part, as an alternative to Trump.
This is clearest on foreign policy, where she offers a reasoned view of America’s role in the world, in contrast to Trump’s conflicting instincts toward isolationism or bullyball. It may also be the case with respect to fiscal policy, to the extent that is freshly salient to GOP primary voters. Trump was a profligate spender and indifferent to debt.
Despite the fentanyl pandering, Haley does sometimes display a pragmatic streak, even on core GOP concerns. She’s right that, after the next election, there won’t be the required 60 votes in the Senate for a national abortion ban or limitation and that, for the foreseeable future, the issue will be decided at the state level.
Because Haley is running at least in part as an alternative to Trump, she doesn’t currently have the MAGA stench in early general election polling. In fact, the most recent polls have her running comfortably ahead of Biden, contrary to either Trump or DeSantis. Unlike DeSantis, she can actually make electability an issue against Trump.
At this point, admittedly early and with limited hard evidence, Haley seems to be the only candidate with a chance, however long the odds, to make the GOP more than just a Trump vanity project.
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org.