Vice President Pence preserves own presidential prospects

Vice President Mike Pence shuttled through the Capitol's empty, drafty hallways one blustery winter day in search of a breakthrough.

It was January 2019, and the government had been partly shut down for weeks in a standoff between his boss, President Donald Trump, and Democrats who refused to fund his border wall. Shadowed by a security detail, Pence traversed the closed building, fielding gripes and asks from GOP senators, nodding, moving on to his next meeting.

A lurking reporter asked Pence as he passed: What was his role in these critical talks?

“I am the vice president of the United States,” Pence replied levelly, and kept walking.

What that has come to mean after more than three years at Trump's side is a blend of deference when the president insists on dominance and steadiness when Trump offers bombast. Sometimes, as when he sat with his eyes shut during an on-camera spat in the Oval Office between Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Pence opts out all together.

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Never crossing Trump has helped the former Indiana governor and congressman survive while tethered to a president who sinks perceived enemies swiftly and publicly. Pence's formal nomination this week as Trump's running mate was a vindication after rumors flew that the president might dump him.

“All my focus is getting this president reelected for four more years,” Pence said in a Fox News Channel interview that aired Tuesday, one day before he is slated to address the convention.

Critics say Pence is deferential to Trump more than any other vice president in history. But the relationship has enabled Pence to elevate causes he prioritizes, such as the anti-abortion movement and religious freedom. And his loyalty helps preserve his own viability as a presidential candidate in 2024.

“I think he’s very OK with it,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus in public affairs and philanthropy at Indiana University, who has known Pence for three decades. Still, he said, it's unclear that Pence's pursuit of the long game will pay off.

“The risk is that this administration will be held in such disregard that Mike doesn’t have much of a shot at moving on,” added Lenkowsky, who served in President George W. Bush's administration. “He’s doing his best to avoid being tarred by it.”

Pence, 61, grew up idolizing President John F. Kennedy and said he voted for President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Later, his idol became President Ronald Reagan, the conservative “happy warrior” whose style Pence echoes when he says he's "a conservative, but I'm not angry about it.”

Pence's Irish Catholic faith threads through his life story, from his roots in Columbus, Indiana, through his marriage to wife Karen, his governorship and his ability to keep evangelicals on board the Trump campaign after a recording released in 2016 revealed Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.

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President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence greet delegates on the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center on August 24, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by David T. Foster III-Pool/Gett

Before he turned to professional politics, Pence practiced law and hosted a talk-radio show in Indiana for several years. He lost his first two bids for Congress but won in 2000 and was reelected five times. He was not known as a lawmaker who got legislation passed. But Pence built influence in other ways, chiefly by chairing groups of House conservatives and helping lead what became the populist tea party. He won the governorship in 2012.

That's when he drew nationwide attention, not always flattering. In 2015 he provoked a national backlash after signing a law that critics said would have allowed businesses to deny service to gay people for religious reasons. Pence also came under fire in 2016 for signing a bill that prohibits abortions when the fetus has a disability.

In the 2016 presidential race, Pence at first endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. And Trump had others initially in mind for his running mate. But a flat tire on Trump's plane in Indianapolis ended up sealing Pence's place on the ticket. Grounded temporarily, Trump and his entourage ended up dining with Pence and his wife while the plane was repaired. And the brash New York real estate magnate with credibility problems among conservatives chose the mild-mannered governor with no such challenge.

Over four years, Pence has come to be Trump’s dependable sidekick. Where Trump is braggadocious, Pence is a humble warrior, willing to do the grunt work and grueling travel that the president is often loathe to do himself.

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That was on display Tuesday night in an emotional nine-minute video featuring Pence interviewing six everyday Americans about how they've benefitted under the Trump administration. Taped last week at President Abraham Lincoln's boyhood home, it put a spotlight on how the Trump team views Pence as bringing the empathy often not on display by the president himself.

That includes shuttling around the chilly Capitol at the height of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. In meeting after meeting, Republicans said Pence heard their concerns and promised to relay them to Trump. But his power to negotiate, senators said afterward, was limited by Trump's mercurial moods.

“He's a good listener,” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said after a hallway meeting with Pence. “Which is a rare quality around here.”

It's a role that Pence has played throughout Trump's presidency. Aides say Trump’s trust in Pence is evident in how he’s tasked his vice president with critical jobs — from negotiating a cease-fire in Syria with Turkish President Recep Teyyip Erdogan last fall to taking over the White House coronavirus task force in February as the pandemic surged across the globe. But there have been humiliations, too. Pence all but disappeared from the task force briefings when Trump opted to front them, again.

Even after Pence opted for fistbumps in the early days of the pandemic, he stuck up for Trump's habit of shaking hands.

“As the president has said, in our line of work you shake hands when someone wants to shake your hand and I expect the president will continue to do that, I’ll continue to do it,” Pence told reporters in March.

Pence’s convention speech Wednesday, from Fort McHenry in Baltimore, is expected to be heavy on a list of accomplishments — Trump’s, not Pence’s — though they are deeply intertwined as many of the president's successes couldn’t have come to pass without the vice president's work.

It’s not that Pence is a silent partner. In fact, he travels more than any modern vice president, both for politics and official business. Aides say Trump’s trust in Pence stems from his unfailing loyalty to the boss. Aides attribute that loyalty both to Pence’s character, but also his view of the vice presidency as existing to support the occupant of the Oval Office.

There's plenty of evidence that the vice president makes certain distinctions between his boss and himself. He has gently but publicly contradicted Trump on testing, treatment and other issues related to the battle against the virus. He shows none of Trump's mean streak or blustery storms of temper.

In a rare moment of public introspection, Pence in a 1998 interview suggested just when his own understanding began to take shape: during his years bantering with guests and offering his views as a talk-radio host.

“I’ve become more myself on radio,” Indiana's Kokomo Tribune quoted him as saying. “There’s a temptation, intentionally or unintentionally, to imitate people you respect. You invariably think, ‘I need to be like someone who is interesting.’ After awhile, you develop a certain comfort level with doing your own thing.”