Parting With Pence

I first met Mike Pence when we were both Republican candidates for Congress. We both lost, and he transitioned to hosting a televised talk show on which his “good friend” (!) Sheila periodically appeared– I was then director of Indiana’s ACLU. (Our discussions usually made me question the “attended law school” entry on his biography…)

Later, when Pence was Governor, former students of mine who were working for state government shared stories of prayer meetings in the Governor’s office–along with their impression that the Governor was basically uninterested in–and incompetent at–governing.

In 2016, as Pence began running for re-election, I had one of those ubiquitous “Pence Must Go” yard signs; I still believe that–had Trump not tapped him to appeal to Evangelical voters, “Pious Pence” would have gone down in well-deserved flames. 

Credit where credit is due: his 2020 decision to uphold the Constitution (despite his very tenuous grasp of its provisions) was laudable and courageous. To the extent Pence has a place in history, that one virtuous decision secured it.

But let’s get real: Mike Pence was never going to be President. 

The best reaction I have read to his withdrawal from the race was written by Mike Leppert.

It was a long shot bid from the start, so, its early end was no surprise. “It’s become clear to me: This is not my time,” was the apt comment he delivered at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual conference. I cannot recall agreeing with him more strenuously, but for more reasons than I expect he intended.

Pence’s time ended shortly after the 2016 election, as did the era of his entire brand of conservativism. The GOP shift toward the populist, inarticulate, grievance-based platform of today cannot credibly tout the Holy Bible as its guide. It never really could, but the party’s hate-based rhetoric of today has made the hard-to-take-seriously piousness of the party’s past an unfunny joke. Pence never wavered from his version of Christianity, though.

Message discipline could be his greatest asset. No matter how bad the message might have been, he was always entirely committed to it. So much so, the repetitiveness of it eventually would damage his authenticity on the stump. However, this skill was a difference maker for the ticket in 2016. He was the only guy who could stick to the script in that chaotic campaign, and I firmly believe that without this contribution, Hillary Clinton wins. 

As Leppert points out, other than an ability to repeat talking points, Pence’s speechifying leaves much to be desired.

Admittedly, I already know that I am about to disagree with him before he makes a sound. But that’s part of the task at hand in political speech: to move people. 

Try to recall a time he did that. Ever. There’s not a moment when he moved a crowd from hostile to simply opposed; from opposed to interested in listening more; or, from neutral to agreeable. On his own side of the aisle, he only succeeded at choosing a narrative he already knew his audience would applaud. As a political writer and communication consultant present in Indiana for almost his entire career, I can attest that I’ve never heard anyone say, “You really should have heard that Pence speech last night!” 

It wasn’t only delivery–his policy positions set him far apart from the general public. 

I’ve written about it before, but governmental control of anyone’s body is not conservatism. It’s pushing totalitarianism. Conservatives adopted the pro-life mantra without reconciling its fundamental contradictions with their platform. And Pence was one of that duality’s leaders. Again, a knock on his authenticity that his supporters are unable to see. 

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act and his monumental mishandling of it, is the event that defines him for many Hoosiers. It was a law that discriminated, by design, against the LGBTQ community. Pence knew that as well as anyone, but he knew he couldn’t get away with just saying that. So, he didn’t. And it cost him twenty points in his approval rating at the time, points he never got back. 

Leppert reminds us that during his congressional career, Pence failed to pass a single bill–that he has no policy victories to tout. For that matter, Leppert says Pence has a tendency to cause more problems than he solves. 

His political brand is highlighted by a career’s worth of troubles, some of his own making, others through his willful acquiescence. His sins are now ironically unforgivable, by a crowd that has never been more in need of forgiveness. 

As Leppert says, pretensions aside, today’s GOP is no longer remotely conservative.

Ironically, the party’s base hates Pence for the single act of his career that actually was conservative.


A Truly Alternate Reality

You’d think that sweltering temperatures, raging fires, the pending collapse of ocean currents, and multiple other signs would convince the dubious holdouts who continue to deny the reality of climate change.

As Time Magazine recently reported, you’d be wrong. Instead, extreme weather is actually fueling the crazy Right.

Rather than climate extremes forcing skeptics of climate policy to “get with the program, “conservative backlash around the world to climate policy may have also reached a fever pitch.”

In the U.S., former President Donald Trump has turned electric vehicles into a major attack line targeting President Joe Biden. In a late June speech, he called Biden’s policies “environmental extremism” and claimed they were “heartless and disloyal and horrible for the American worker.’

As the article notes, it is abundantly clear that partisanship matters.

A 2020 paper in the journal Nature Climate Change pointed to a clear dividing line in the U.S. Extreme weather tends to reinforce the link between climate change and weather effects in Democratic and/or highly educated communities—and less so elsewhere.

This dynamic means that extreme weather may actually be creating an opportunity for conservatives to cater to their base. As heat waves or flooding raises the specter of climate change for certain groups, others can use it to raise the specter of the costs of climate policy to rally their most loyal supporters who are primed to oppose it anyway.

It’s relatively easy to dismiss Trump’s rantings on the subject (okay, on any subject), but for most rational individuals, it is simply inconceivable that political operatives would ignore the dangers of climate change in order to play on the ignorance of their supporters–a strategy they must know increases the very real threats to humanity. (Perhaps none of them have grandchildren…)

Inconceivable or not, according to a story in the Guardian, that strategy is deliberate.

An alliance of rightwing groups has crafted an extensive presidential proposal to bolster the planet-heating oil and gas industry and hamstring the energy transition, it has emerged. Against a backdrop of record-breaking heat and floods this year, the $22m endeavor, Project 2025, was convened by the notorious rightwing, climate-denying think-tank the Heritage Foundation, which has ties to fossil fuel billionaire Charles Koch.

Called the Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, it is meant to guide the first 180 days of presidency for an incoming Republican president, writes Dharna Noor. Climate experts and advocates have criticized planning that would dismantle US climate policy. The guide’s chapter on the US Department of Energy proposes eliminating three agency offices that are crucial for the energy transition, and also calls to slash funding to the agency’s grid deployment office in an effort to stymie renewable energy deployment, E&E News reported this week.

The plan is nothing if not thorough; electing a Republican President who would implement it would be nothing short of suicidal. 

The part of the plan dealing with the Department of Energy (which would also hugely expand gas infrastructure) was authored by Bernard McNamee, formerly a senior advisor to Ted Cruz. McNamee previously led the far-right Texas Public Policy Foundation, which fights environmental regulation.

Another chapter focuses on gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and moving it away from its focus on the climate crisis. It proposes cutting the agency’s environmental justice and public engagement functions, while shrinking it as a whole by terminating new hires in “low-value programs”, E&E News reported. The proposal was written Mandy Gunasekara, who was the former chief of staff at the EPA under Trump.

Efforts to undermine existing environmental safeguards aren’t limited to Rightwing think-tanks. GOP members of the House continually attack federal climate funding in their spending bill proposals, putting numerous governmental functions at risk.

Earlier this month, the Clean Budget Coalition– – composed of more than 250 advocacy groups – warned that Republican representatives were slipping restrictions on climate spending into the government’s annual spending bills, bills that must be passed before current funding expires on 30 September to avoid a government shutdown. This week, the coalition found that House Republicans had added additional “poison pills” to spending bills, including ones that target environmental funding.

The ragtag group of Republicans running for President are echoing this insanity–none more enthusiastically than Indiana’s “gift” to the nation, Mr. Piety Pence.

Pence–a longtime climate-change denier who (fortunately) has about as much chance of being President as I do–recently unveiled an economic proposal that includes eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and reversing President Biden’s efforts to curb the impacts of climate change.

This Republican attack on sanity raises the stakes. Voting Blue is no longer “just” about fighting racism and homophobia, regaining women’s autonomy and protecting democracy.

It’s not hyperbole to say it’s about protecting life on Earth.


Dense Pence

I’ve been told that Mike Pence’s law school nickname was “dense Pence.” Perhaps that was apocryphal–I wasn’t in school with him– but Pence’s entry into the Presidential sweepstakes suggests its appropriateness. 

Allow me a couple of admissions.

I’ve known Pence ever since we were both losing Republican candidates for Congress. I was an occasional “guest” on his call-in show, trying–without much success–to defend those “un-Christian” First Amendment clauses mandating separation of church and state…

By the end of his embarrassing term as Indiana Governor qua Priest, I was the owner of several of those “Pence Must Go” signs that were widely displayed around Indiana prior to Trump’s rescue of Pence’s doomed candidacy for a second term.

So–as these admissions suggest–I’m not a fan.

That said, the media reaction to his Presidential candidacy has largely confirmed my belief that anyone who actually thinks Pence might be the eventual nominee is smoking something, and it’s very strong.

The New York Times polled the paper’s opinion writers. Let me share a few of their responses.

When asked how seriously a Pence candidacy should be taken, Michelle Cottle said: “As seriously as the wet dishrag he impersonated for most of his term as V.P.” Katherine Mangu-Ward contributed: “Mike Pence is a serious person. He is seriously not going to be president.”

Frank Bruni admitted to being  “unsettled by how strongly Pence has always let his deeply conservative version of Christianity inform his policy positions.” Bruni noted that while he deeply respects people of faith,  Pence “makes inadequate distinction between personal theology and public governance.” Bruni was far more polite on that subject than Cottle, who said that Pence “wants to ram his conservative religious views down the nation’s throat.”

Jane Coaston described Pence’s entry as “a candidacy no one wants.”  Michelle Cottle offered backhand praise with “He’s a uniter: Everyone dislikes him.”

Coaston summed up the panel’s verdict: He might be the most uninspiring candidate currently running. (She did say he has great hair.)

Then there’s the Washington Post headline: “Mystery surrounds Mike Pence’s doomed presidential candidacy.”

Having spent the past 2½ years being booed by Republican audiences and mocked on social media, Mike Pence has decided that the American people are finally ready for him. So, with the obligatory period of prayer and contemplation out of the way, the former vice president has officially filed the paperwork to run for president.
There’s no mystery about whether Pence could overcome former president Donald Trump and seize the leadership of his party. The mystery is why he thinks he has any chance at all.

Pence is a photo negative image of contemporary political attractiveness, simultaneously repelling Republicans, Democrats and independents. In his bewildering belief that he might become president, he demonstrates the power of ambition to cloud the mind of even the most experienced politician.

The article describes Pence as someone who “reminds you of a regional manager at a midsize Indiana ball-bearing manufacturer.” And if that description isn’t sufficiently dismissive, the article points out that “there is almost no significant group of voters who does not already dislike Pence for one reason or another.”

In a general election, Pence would offer voters the worst of all possible worlds: an uncharismatic candidate advocating the GOP’s unpopular policies. Voters are not clamoring for someone to tell them why we need to cut taxes for the rich and outlaw abortion, delivered in the tone of a stepdad explaining why you’re being grounded for the rest of the school year….

Other long-shot candidates have something resembling a rationale. Nikki Haley paints herself as the leader of a new generation of conservatives. Tim Scott offers a conservatism that is hard right in substance but kinder and gentler in manner. But Pence — who at some point might have seemed as though he was constructed in a lab to become the GOP nominee (experienced! conservative! devout!) — is now exactly what no one wants.

If elections revolved around policy preferences, no GOP candidate would stand a chance; poll after poll confirms that a majority of Americans soundly reject Republican policies on abortion and guns, its wars on trans children, books and (undefined) “wokeness,” the party’s steadfast refusal to raise taxes on the obscenely rich …

What does appeal to today’s Republican voters is bigotry and White Nationalism. Pence’s original usefulness to Trump and the GOP was his ability to cloak racism, misogyny and homophobia in Christian piety–to pretend that he represented a party that hated the sin but loved the sinner.  

In the intervening years, the GOP has thrown off the cloak, and thus no longer has any use for Pastor Pence. Why he doesn’t understand that is, as the Post says, a mystery.



Dense Pence Could Save The Democrats

Talk about life in a bubble…Mike Pence has been hawking his book (“So Help Me God”) and in a recent interview with Chuck Todd, displayed the perceptive characteristics that prompted what I’ve been told was his law school nickname: dense Pence.

Pence’s smarmy opinions will come as no surprise to Hoosiers who watched Mr. Piety with growing alarm during his gubernatorial term. In the interview, Pence doubled down on his support for anti-choice laws. When Todd asked him to reconcile that support with his purported belief in limited government–to explain how his declared opposition to “invasive government” co-existed with his insistence that  government force women to give birth– he simply repeated his clearly theocratic position.

Evidently, using the power of the state to impose the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians on everyone else isn’t “invasive government.” Who knew?

Pence also took the position that a fetus should be afforded constitutional rights–an opinion that places him at the very far reaches of the reactionary right.

As a snarky post on Daily Kos reported, however, he did exempt one medical procedure from the iron arm of the state: IVF–or fertility treatments. And why would this self-appointed “soldier of God” allow science to shape his approach to this method of assistingreproduction, when he pointedly ignores what medical science tells us about pregnancy and abortion generally?

Stay calm, America. While you’re taking some time to regain your breath after facing the raw, masculine courage it must have taken for a Republican to say out loud that maybe American citizens shouldn’t be thrown in prison for using a widely available infertility treatment that a creepy undercult of American society believes they and only they should be in charge of, you don’t need to be too surprised here. Yeah, it turns out a Republican thinks a particular medical procedure should not be criminalized only because it’s one that personally benefited his own family.

As that snarky post pointed out, this willingness to exempt a procedure because his family personally benefitted from it is patently inconsistent with the “theology” of “pro life” Christianists.  (But then, giving the state authority over reproduction is also inconsistent with the libertarian conservatism that opposed requiring masks and/or vaccinations during a pandemic…Pence evidently read Emerson to say that consistency–rather than foolish consistency– is the hobgoblin of little minds…) (Silly me–I doubt Mike ever read Emerson, or for that matter, anything but his bible…)

The problem with IVF, then, is that if you believe that the primary role of God is to police everybody’s sex lives and make sure nobody is either making babies or not making babies without the express written consent of Himself, Major League Baseball, and/or whatever local pastor has a bug up his rectory about it, then the IVF process of fertilizing multiple eggs and implanting each of them into the uterus in the hopes that at least one of them will successfully attach and grow means all the fertilized eggs that don’t get used or which don’tsuccessfully attach themselves are all full-fledged human beings and well, now you, your partner, and the doctors are all serial killers for not being able to bring all those fertilized eggs to term as well. Many far-right religious conservatives want would-be parents to go to jail for that, too.

If Mike Pence thinks his incoherent theocracy will sell to the American public, he really does occupy a very small bubble.

Research tells us that 24% of American women will have at least one abortion by age 45. Fifty-nine percent of those women are mothers. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” rose to its highest level in June of this year.

Pro-choice sentiment is now the highest Gallup has measured since 1995 when it was 56% — the only other time it has been at the current level or higher — while the 39% identifying as “pro-life” is the lowest since 1996.

Even among those self-identifying as “pro-life,” there is diminished support for the sort of complete ban favored by Pence and his theocratic cohort.

The latest data show Americans are less likely than a year ago to say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, falling six points to 13%, the lowest Gallup has recorded for this position since 1995. At the same time, the 35% wanting it legal under any circumstances is the highest in Gallup’s trend by one point, after increasing slightly each of the past three years.

Pence’s obvious belief that his intransigence on this issue will help him electorally reminded me of something my kids would say to me after I uttered an observation that was wildly at odds with the national mood: “You don’t get out much, do you?”

Dense Pence doesn’t get out much.


Describing Mike Pence

Every Monday, Gail Collins and Bret Stephens have a “conversation” on the op-ed page of the New York Times. As I have noted on several occasions, I am a huge fan of Gail Collins, who argues for the liberal side in those conversations, and although I disagree with Bret Stephens–representing the conservative side– on a number of issues (not all), he makes me nostalgic for the time when Republicans a/k/a conservatives could be engaged in actual discussions. Today,  they prefer to emulate monkeys throwing poo….

Unlike the inarticulate Trump Republicans hurling verbal poo, Stephens also has a real talent for witty invective, and that talent was on display in his conversation with Collins last Monday.

The column was titled “The Mike Pence Saga Tells Us More Than We Want to Know,” and after touching on a number of other issues, including New York’s mayoral primary and Trump’s Ohio rally, the conversation turned to Indiana’s ex-Governor and America’s ex-Vice-President, Mike Pence.

Here’s that portion of their back-and-forth:

Bret: You know, I probably spend more time thinking about Mike Pence than I ought to, given my high blood pressure. He reminds me of Mr. Collins, the unctuous clergyman in “Pride and Prejudice” who’s always bowing and scraping to the overbearing, tasteless, talentless Lady Catherine de Bourgh while he lords it over the Bennet family because he stands to inherit their estate. Alternatively, Pence could be a character out of Dickens, with some ridiculous name like Wackford Squeers or Mr. Pumblechook.

Gail: Wow, great analogies. Plus, it is indeed possible you spend more time thinking about Pence than you ought to.

Bret: Here’s a guy who makes his career on the Moral Majority wing of the Republican Party, until he hitches his wagon to the most immoral man ever to win a big-ticket presidential nomination. Phyllis Schlafly deciding to elope with Larry Flynt would have made more sense. Then Pence spends four years as the most servile, toadying, obsequious, fawning, head-nodding, yes-sirring, anything-you-say-boss vice president in history. He’ll do anything for Trump’s love — but not, as the singer Meat Loaf might have said, attempt to steal the presidential election in broad daylight.

For this, Trump rewards Pence by throwing him to a mob, which tried to hunt him down and hang him. But even now, Pence can’t get crosswise with his dark lord, so the idea of him ever taking the party in an anti-Trump direction seems like a fantasy.

Those of us who follow such things have watched as Pence tries to appeal both to Trumpers and to the majority of Americans who were appalled at efforts to withhold certification of the election results. He is continuing his adulation of his “dark lord” while insisting that his courageous fidelity to the Constitution kept him from refusing to perform his electoral duty. That balancing act is unlikely to mollify either the crazies who form the base of today’s GOP or anyone who spent four years observing Mike Pence. (It’s especially unlikely to endear him to Indiana voters, who found his preference for pontificating over governing during the prior four years very tiring).

Pence’s effort to cast himself as a defender of the Constitution is coming at the same time as Bill Barr’s equally tardy effort to distance himself from the Big Lie. (“It’s all bullshit.”)

Neither man is very persuasive, but the efforts are instructive. When two of his biggest sycophants attempt to distance themselves from the disaster that is Trump, it is a clear sign that his influence is waning–that those who were happy to carry his water when he was in office don’t expect him to regain power or influence–or be in any position to do them any good. (It’s too little, too late–Bill Barr is never going to regain the respect of the legal community, and Pence never had the respect of anyone other than a few naive fundamentalists.)

Wackford Squeers sounds about right…