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Jun 7, 2023, 5:48pm EDT
politics

Donald Trump - January 6 + Ronald Reagan = Mike Pence

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The News

ANKENY, Iowa – Mike Pence entered the 2024 presidential race with sharp, direct criticism of Donald Trump, accusing his former running mate of betraying both conservatism and the Constitution.

“Anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States,” Pence told a crowd at the Future Farmers of America building outside Des Moines. “Anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president again.”

Sketching out his own vision for the country — from entitlement reform to protecting “the God-given right to life” — Pence promised to “restore a threshold of civility to our politics” while pursuing a conservative agenda.

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“We need leaders who can distinguish between starting fights and finishing them,” Pence said.

A longtime culture warrior in his own right, he also made clear he wouldn’t cede the debate to Ron DeSantis on social issues.

“I stood before the woke brigades even before woke was a thing,” Pence said Wednesday.

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David and Shelby's View

Pence is offering what many frustrated conservatives say they’ve long craved — the policies of the Trump years, with no place for Trump himself.

He spent a surprising amount of time condemning Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6, far more aggressively in many ways than his public remarks in the aftermath of the riot itself. He made clear he would embrace the administration’s record, while treating Trump’s efforts to overturn the election as a red line — a stance that could put pressure on other candidates to take a clearer position themselves.

But Pence also made the pitch that he was a more reliable Reagan-style conservative than Trump, saying that the former president was “retreating from the cause of the unborn” and accusing him of echoing Joe Biden by refusing to tackle entitlement reform.

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“Mike’s proud of the record of the administration,” Marc Short, one of Pence’s senior advisors, told Semafor. “When Trump literally says, [abortion is] now on the negotiating table because of me — what’s on the negotiating table? Which children live and which ones don’t? I think that’s going to be an important separation.”

On both issues, Trump’s taken the position that polls best — letting states write their own abortion laws, and refusing to ever cut Medicare or Social Security. On the latter, Pence sounded more like former House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose politics have been abandoned by MAGA Republicans, than most Republicans running for president. And Trump abandoned those politics because Ryan, as the party’s 2012 nominee for vice president, got clobbered.

Pence starts this race in a weaker position than most former vice presidents who’ve sought the presidency, few of whom ever challenged their running mates. (The last one to do it was John Nance Garner, who ran against FDR when the president sought a then-unprecedented third term in 1940.)

Trump’s decision to run deprives Pence of the biggest advantage that former vice presidents like Joe Biden or George H.W. Bush typically enjoy: A built-in base of support inherited from the president they served. And his break with Trump over his false election claims puts him on the other side of most Republican voters.

Short argued that Republican primarygoers could be swayed away from Trump on this topic. He told Semafor that a recent focus group shared with Pence’s team, but not commissioned by them, found that participants understood and agreed with Pence’s actions regarding the 2020 election — but only after hearing Pence, in past speeches, lay out his side of the story.

“People have been told one thing, but they haven’t heard the other side,” Short said. “They’ve heard it from mainstream media, but they haven’t heard from a conservative perspective.”

Trump’s top rival, DeSantis, condemned the violence on January 6 at the time, but has said little about the topic overall and recently told an interviewer he’d consider pardons for people convicted in connection with the riot.

In polling of next year’s Iowa caucuses, make-or-break for Pence, he polls in the low single digits, far behind Trump and DeSantis. In the March edition of the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, one in four GOP voters had an unfavorable view of Pence, higher than any other candidate.

The launch event was also smaller than the one DeSantis put together on his first stop here, when he filled a chapel and an overflow room. Some seats were reserved for Pence’s family friends who’d come in from Indiana, and campaign staff kept the mood high with chants of “I Like Mike,” tossing campaign T-shirts past the red, white, and blue balloons in a room that fit less than 300 people. The password for the event’s wifi was “KeptHisOath!”

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The View From a Voter

“I’ve grown more and more impressed with Mr. Pence over the last several months. I was really impressed with his integrity over the January 6th incident and the way he’s conducted himself then and since,” 77-year-old Paul Cox said. “I thought his tone [today] was perfect. I thought he was very respectful of former President Trump, and yet he also made his case for the stance that he took.”

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Notable

  • In The New York Times, Jonathan Swan notes that Pence is “the most conservative candidate competing for the presidency” — but that fact might not matter anymore. “The president Mr. Pence served under, Donald J. Trump, transformed the G.O.P. electorate, making the path to a Pence presidency visible only to the truest of true believers,” Swan reported.
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