On Mike Pence's Destructive Ambition

graphic of Mike Pence with his shifty eyes highlighted

At Vanity Fair, David Drucker has written a piece about the possible existence of a "shadow campaign" being run by Mike Pence, as he takes the lead on rallying the Republicans through midterms, becase that, like many other responsibilities of being president, is something in which Donald Trump has no interest.

Naturally, there are Republicans quick to assert that "dispatching the vice president is only logical," but, noting that Pence has built a political operation that now outmatches the president's, a "Republican insider and former leadership aide in Congress" told Drucker that Pence's maneuvering is "unusual. Most V.P. offices haven't dreamed of having separate political operations from that of the president of the United States."

Yes, well, most vice presidents aren't Mike Pence. Most vice presidents weren't about to lose their gubernatorial reelection before they were plucked to serve as second to a president who explicitly wanted a vice-president to "be in charge of domestic and foreign policy," leaving his boss free to "Make America great again," whatever that means on any given day.

The subhead on the Vanity Fair piece is: "Could Pence's ambition make him the president's next mortal enemy?" But that isn't the right question. The right question is whether Pence's ambition makes him the nation's next mortal enemy.

* * *

Mike Pence has the kind of insatiable ambition that is supposed to be disqualifying, at least when it's attributed to a woman.

Although Hillary Clinton didn't think about running for president until late in her life, following a life and career that nonetheless prepared her exquisitely for the role, during the last election we were greeted regularly with headlines like this one at the Atlantic: "The Curse of Hillary Clinton's Ambition." Commentators routinely questioned whether she was "too ambitious," using thinly veiled euphemisms — or not. When his hacked emails were made public, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was revealed to have said that Clinton had "unbridled ambition" and was "greedy."

Whatever women are accused of, you can be sure there's a man for whom it's true. And if there is a man whose ambition is truly destructive, it's Pence.

Unlike many women his age or older, for whom the presidency, or politics in general, didn't seem like a realistic option until much later in their lives, Pence has wanted to be president his entire life.

In a piece for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer recounted visiting Pence's hometown of Columbus, Indiana, where the retired editor of the local paper told her that Pence "wanted to be President practically since he popped out of the womb," and that he is "very ambitious, even calculating, about the steps he'll take toward that goal."

And he wasn't shy about broadcasting his ambition: His family told Mayer that Pence "was talking to classmates about becoming President of the United States" by his senior year of high school.

He climbed his way through failed Congressional bids, conservative radio, and eventually successful Congressional bids into the Indiana Governor's office, positioning himself all the way as a conservative, born-again, evangelical Christian. In a profile for Indianapolis Monthly, published soon after Pence was elected governor, Craig Fehrman noted one of Pence's oft-quoted slogans: He's "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order."

Fehrman also observed that "Mike Pence has been running for office basically since grade school."

There has always been a fundamental — and unresolved — tension between Pence's claims of principled piety and his willingness to do anything to win. The way that Pence has bridged that irreconcilable conflict is to keep his ambition concealed; to be a snake who prefers the shadows rather than the sunshine.

In April, Axios' Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen detailed Pence's strategy for keeping in Trump's good graces, despite the fact that it's manifestly obvious Pence is maneuvering to assume the presidency, as soon as possible.
He rarely offends or challenges Trump — and never in public or in front of others. In TV interviews, he treats the boss with deference that makes many cringe but delights the Big Man.

He has assembled his own team, loyal to him, and mostly savvy enough to keep their heads down and mouths shut. Pence is the happy, on-message Christian warrior.

Since the campaign, Pence has played on his "aw shucks" second-fiddle role, even joking about how much poorer he is than Trump. He told members at a Republican retreat that he comes from "the Joseph A. Bank wing of the West Wing." Trump loves that.

Former campaign officials used to joke that if Newt Gingrich had been chosen as V.P., he would've lasted about a week before Trump ripped his head off.

Trump couldn't stand having a V.P. with whom he'd have to compete with for media attention. There's no risk of that with the studiously sober Pence.
Indeed. As I wrote even before the inauguration: "His stealth is the perfect complement to Trump's theatrical egotism: Pence will exploit every second of being ignored to enact a radical conservative agenda in the long shadow cast by Trump's attention-grubbing megalomania. Mike Pence would like nothing more than our inattention. Which is precisely why we must keep our eyes on him."

Pence is a savvy manipulator, more sinister than the people who buy his cornpone persona could ever imagine. He is patient and opportunistic. And he depends on the endless good will extended by white conservative evangelicals to anyone who makes them a promise to destroy feminists and kissing boys and brown people in the name of Jesus forever and ever amen, which is why he is forgiven his association with the vile Trump.

But the rest of us should note keenly that Pence's eminent willingness to abet this administration and its profoundly disgusting president means he is no longer "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order," if he ever really was. (He wasn't.)

Consider the number of articles published about Hillary Clinton's destructive ambition, based on rumors and rank misogyny, and then consider there has been nary a one about how Pence's ambition is so destructive that a man who has built his career on being a sanctimonious Christian is abetting the most indecent president in the nation's history.

Pence has always been a Republican first. A Republican who has wanted to be president since he was a child. His guiding principle is not anything one will find in a religious text; it's Do Anything to Be President.

Including being the odious Trump's vice president, no matter how off-brand it is for Pence, because that's his best shot at the presidency.

After all, he was going to lose his reelection in Indiana, before Paul Manafort rescued him with the offer to be Trump's running mate.

* * *

Shockingly little has been written in the national media about Mike Pence's tenure as governor of Indiana. If you've heard anything about Pence's deplorable reign, perhaps it was his signing a horrendously homophobic "religious liberty" bill, or perhaps it was his sustained attack on reproductive choice which included harassing Planned Parenthood and jailing Purvi Patel, or perhaps it was the HIV outbreak in Austin, Indiana.

Maybe, although less likely, it was how Pence was telling the same lies Trump now tells about the refugee screening process in order to justify a court battle over the settlement of refugees in Indiana, which looks exactly like what Trump is now replicating on the national stage.

There's a chance, although a small one, that you heard about Pence's email problem. Last year, Pence turned over 13 boxes of emails in an "effort to make sure they are archived as required by law." The fact that he only turned these over after his email became a minor national news story is indicative of the fact that he wouldn't have complied if he hadn't been caught.

Pence also waged a campaign to get the Indiana Supreme Court to "stay out of his redacted emails." When I linked that story last February, I noted: "Anyone who imagines Pence is less authoritarian or more decent than Trump is sorely mistaken."

It's Pence's authoritarianism and corruption that has gotten the least amount of coverage, even as investigations in his home state continue — and even despite the fact that it was his authoritarianism, his willingness to do anything to win, that is what led to his vast unpopularity in Indiana.

Let me again tell you the story of Glenda Ritz: Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, was elected in 2012 to be Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was a huge underdog—but defeated the incumbent because a majority of Hoosiers, both progressive and conservative, supported her willingness to challenge Republican proposals that would destroy public education in Indiana.

Ritz was the first Democrat to serve as Superintendent in 40 years.

Pence was elected during the same election. One of his first acts as governor was to remove Ritz from the union-centered Educational Employment Relations Board. The Republican-controlled House Education Committee then proposed a bill to "strip the superintendent's position as chair of the State Board of Education. …The bill would allow Republican Gov. Mike Pence's 10 appointees to the 11-member board to elect their own chair."

In other words, as soon as a Democrat was elected to an influential state position (with 53% of the vote, higher than Pence received), the Republican governor and legislature set to rendering her office utterly without power and empowering themselves to oust her and prevent the reforms she was elected to champion.

The Republicans claimed their power grab, with Pence leading the charge, was merely intended to "clarify control of education policy."

Which is quite an extraordinary euphemism for seize unilateral control of education policy, in direct contravention of the will of the voters.

Who weren't happy about it.

This is how Pence does business. And his hostility toward the democratic process has been evident even as he sits the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency, chairing the Orwellian-named Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the raison d'ĂȘtre of which was to undermine the integrity of the nation's elections.

He will do anything to win. He will abandon all pretense of his much-lauded morality to align himself with a confessed serial sex abuser and white supremacist; he will invite and exploit hatred of marginalized people; he will change the rules; he will rig elections; and he will demonstrably lie about his knowledge of collusion with a foreign adversary that happened right under his nose as he ran the presidential transition.

And although he wouldn't launch a nuke over an insult he hears about on Fox & Friends, Pence is just as likely as Trump (and maybe even more so) to start another kind of war over reasons conjured from prejudice and lies. Just like the last Republican president did. There is absolutely no reason to believe — none — that Pence is any less likely to replicate the strategy that worked so well for George W. Bush and cook up some garbage rationale for invading another country.

Trump's and Pence's methods are different. The depth of their malice is precisely the same.

And Pence's ambition is just as destructive as the man under whom he currently serves. Destructive for Trump, perhaps. Destructive for the nation with absolute certainty.

As a vice-president, and thus president of the Senate, who has been handed extraordinary power by the president, and a former member of the House with deep ties to many members of the GOP caucus, Pence has been and remains perfectly positioned to simultaneously: Assist Trump with his dreadful executive agenda; support Congress in their nefarious legislative aims; and work with the Cabinet (clearly shaped by his influence) to destroy every federal agency.

And he's still one step away from the position of power he has desired nearly his whole life.

* * *

There has been far too little scrutiny of Pence in the political press. What questions have been asked of his willingness to abet Trump have mostly presumed, wrongly, that Pence largely doesn't support Trump's agenda, but instead is holding his nose and tolerating it as he bides his time to get his turn.

That should not be an excuse for failing to turn a critical eye to Pence's destructive ambition. To the contrary, that should be the starting point for those questions.

What does it tell us that Mike Pence is willing to sacrifice his claimed principles in order to stand next to the president? Nothing good. What does it tell us that Mike Pence is willing to abet all manner of indecency in order to gain more power? Nothing good. What does it tell us that Mike Pence will manipulate and betray the people he purports to fully support, to his own benefit; that he will sell out our very democracy if it gives him the opportunity to consolidate Republican control?

Nothing good about him, and nothing good for the rest of us.

That is what destructive ambition actually looks like. Would that it was given half the attention dedicated to ambitious women who seek office because they love this country and want its federal government to work, not because they want to destroy it.

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