What’s Mike Pence’s way back to the White House?

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Mike Pence wants to be president.

Of course, like so many politicians, Pence always wanted to be president. It is considered the championship belt of American democracy, the ultimate achievement in this competition. That’s not particularly healthy, of course; Ideally, the ultimate benefit of public service would be the opportunity to serve the public. But we’re not all naive, so let’s see this for what it is.

That motivation is why Pence agreed to be Donald Trump’s running mate. The vice presidency—or even a vice presidential nomination—is a great way to raise the national profile. pence was cautiously critical of Trump’s positions as the 2016 primary election approached, in line with the Republican establishment’s preferred pattern of targeting the insurgent candidate who was expected to collapse at any moment. But then Trump got the nomination and approached Pence and there you go.

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But even as he entered for second place, Pence pondered how to eliminate the “vice” from his eventual title. As the “Access Hollywood” tape expired just before the 2016 election, Pence reportedly began selflessly offering his own services as a party candidate. That little hiccup soon resolved itself, however, and – much to their surprise – Pence landed just a heartbeat away from the brass ring.

For over four years, Pence has been quietly loyal to Trump, doing his best to keep all parties happy with him — or at least not infuriate them. He campaigned with Trump for re-election but, when that failed, mostly stayed out of the machinations to seek a second term despite the loss. After the Capitol riot, Pence refused to use the 25th Amendment to oust Trump — but also refused to go along with Trump’s half-baked plan to simply reject electoral votes submitted by states that had lost his ticket.

And that was it. More than five years of presidential clinging collapsed in the face of demands that Pence Trump should prioritize loyalty over the rule of law. Days before January 6, 2021, Trump had placed the entire burden of staying in office on Pence’s shoulders; When Pence rejected the idea, Trump evicted him from MAGAland. As recently as last week, Trump vilified Pence for doing the only thing he could legally do — which wasn’t what Trump wanted.

Still, Pence obviously wants to be president. He’s doing the things that signaled in the Before Times that a nationally known candidate would throw his hat in the ring: the keynote addresses, the trips to the primary states, the public relations. In fact, he’s doing what he’s always done: treating the Trump presidency as perfectly normal and his own position as a normal position held by a politician.

Unfortunately for the former vice president, the ship of normalcy sailed a long time ago. The Republican electorate is not responding to the old signals in the same way. And a potential Pence candidacy will be stained by Trump regardless of whether the former president runs.

It’s far too early to make many concrete calls about the 2024 presidential primary, but we can make some observations on what we’re seeing now. There are two broad groups of Republican voters: those who do and those who don’t long for a Trumpian Republican in the White House. Shortly after Trump left office, his pollster Tony Fabrizio broke this down further into five groups, including far-right conspiracy theorists, but for our purposes this yin-yang will work.

Pence’s game was to maintain attractiveness for both groups. To be the Trump loyalist and government official who gets nods from Trump boosters, and to be the sensible Republican anchor in a turbulent world who can appeal to Trump skeptics. He wants to be a bridge between the two, the colossus with one foot on every bank.

The problem is that he’s likely to get the disadvantages of both positions, not the advantages.

Republicans who are skeptical of Trump — about a third of the party, according to Fabrizio — are likely to have other, less Trump-contiguous options. If any of them seem more viable than Pence, that’s where they’ll go.

Meanwhile, Trump supporters may not be enthusiastic about Pence for a number of reasons. The first is that Trump could walk himself, and why would a Coca-Cola fan choose RC Cola when Coke is on the menu? Second, Pence has never been an important part of Trumpism, nor has the Republican Party. He was a remora on Trump’s shark. And the third, of course, is that Trump has spent months blaming Pence for his loss.

As Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put itPence wants to paint his dispute with Trump as a one-sided dispute in which only Trump is involved. That’s basically what Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) did as he drove to his party’s nomination earlier this year. But it’s far easier to shake off Trump when you’re an incumbent elected on your own merit than as a potential candidate whose political identity is subsumed by that of the former president.

If Pence’s goal is to be the less unpredictable, sharper iteration of Trumpism, he’s already being dubbed. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has secured the Trumpism-without-Trump trail should he decide to run, which he almost certainly will. things can change; Scandals can arise; Voter tastes can change. But YouGov polls conducted for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last month found that DeSantis had a clear second-place advantage among likely main voters. Most respondents said they would vote for Trump, but a quarter had chosen DeSantis as their first choice. A third of respondents had DeSantis as their second choice — more than Pence as their first, second, or third choice.

Things change! There is still a long way to go before the primary and a lot can happen that Trump could decide not to run. But Pence is not in an enviable position.

Still, he pushes forward. After all, things can change. Perhaps in 2024 there will suddenly be a demand for a man who can credibly point to the “Trump administration” on his resume, but who is also viewed as sane by big donors and longtime Republicans. Perhaps things will work out and he can become the Republican Party nominee, but whether he can win the presidency himself is, of course, another matter entirely.

As it turns out, Pence’s best hope for becoming president is the same one he had from 2017 to 2021: wait for something to change dramatically and be in the right place to capitalize on it.

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