JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mike Pence climbed out of a black SUV Friday night, rushing to catch a flight to D.C., and then thought to ask where he was.
“Which airport is this?” Pence asked his close adviser Marc Short, as they ducked out of the driving rain.
Such is life on the road. But if Pence was unsure of where he was Friday, he does not seem to lack clarity about or determination about running for president in 2024, even though he insisted to Yahoo News in a lengthy interview Friday that he has “made no decision” about doing so.
Even if that’s true, Pence this weekend launched into a more aggressive message taking on both former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the two frontrunners for the GOP nomination.
At the same time, he has been taking a message of redemption to voters, portraying himself as a leader who will restore integrity to the presidency, in a subtle but unmissable rebuke to Trump.
In his interview with Yahoo News, meanwhile, Pence did not hesitate when asked about Trump’s promise to supporters at CPAC earlier this month, when he told them, “I am your retribution.”
“I don’t think that language belongs in the American political lexicon. I don’t,” Pence said as we sped down Interstate 95 after his appearance at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual donor retreat in Sea Island, Ga. “Look, we’ve got some major issues facing this country, but in the next election, I think the American people are going to be looking for problem solvers, not payback.”
Pence’s refusal to go along with Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election will be at the heart of any run for president. It is now central to his political identity and is a matter of historical significance.
In his interview with Yahoo News, Pence rebutted Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s claim that Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were not insurrectionists, telling Yahoo News that while he still wants to know more about why there was a “breakdown in preparation,” he will “never, ever diminish the violence that occurred that day, the heroism of law enforcement, or the threat to our democracy because it was real and the American people know it.”
There is a bit of a tightrope for Pence to walk in talking about Jan. 6. He does not want to repudiate his own role as an enabler of Trump’s rise to power and as a vice president whose support for Trump’s presidency was often mocked as sycophantic. Still, he does not want to alienate too many Trump devotees.
But Pence — a famously devout evangelical Christian — has been drawing a contrast with Trump that echoes the way Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976 by portraying himself as a redeemer of the nation after Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.
“I like to say oftentimes when I’m traveling around, our challenge in going forward is just to have government as good as our people,” Pence told Yahoo News. He used that line as well in a recent editorial that was drawn from remarks he made at Hillsdale College.
Pence told Yahoo News he was unaware that Carter had used almost identical language almost 50 years ago when running against the legacy of a president facing the potential of criminal prosecution, as Trump now does for a variety of reasons: for his alleged use of hush money to silence a former mistress, for his attempt to pressure Georgia politicians to overturn the election, for potentially obstructing Congress in an official proceeding on Jan. 6.
Carter in 1976 would regularly tell crowds, “I want a government that is as good, and honest, and decent, and truthful, and fair, and competent, and idealistic, and compassionate, and as filled with love as are the American people,” as journalist Jules Witcover documented in his book “Marathon.”
Pence told Yahoo News: “We need government that is as principled and patriotic, as grounded in freedom, but also practices the kind of civility and respect the American people show one another almost every day.” He said, “I like to tell people, you get 15 miles out of Washington, D.C., the people in this country actually get along pretty well most days.
“I think the American people long to get back to that, but it begins by just having faith that the American people are looking for leadership that shows the civility and respect that they show one another, as well as a commitment to principle,” Pence said.
Pence will campaign in New Hampshire on Thursday and in Iowa on Saturday. DeSantis made his first trip to Iowa this past weekend, and Trump was headed there Monday for his first visit of the 2024 cycle.
Turning to the Florida governor, Pence said DeSantis was “wrong” to retaliate against the Walt Disney Co. after then-CEO Bob Chapek criticized Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay legislation in 2022. The controversial law banned the discussion of sexual orientation and identity for younger students, but critics say its passage was unnecessary, discriminatory and counterproductive.
Pence has said he supported the legislation, and reiterated that point to Yahoo News. But he also elaborated on why he thought DeSantis should not have asked the state Legislature to revoke Disney’s special tax status and other loopholes affecting the massive company’s sprawling Walt Disney World resort.
“Businesses have the right to take the stance that they take without fear of retribution from government entities,” Pence said. He compared DeSantis to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last week cut all ties between his state and Walgreens in response to the company’s decision not to dispense abortion medication in states where Republican lawmakers have curtailed access to the procedure.
“It’s two sides of the same coin,” Pence said of the actions taken by DeSantis and Newsom, a Democrat thought to have his own presidential aspirations. Pence said that a conservative approach would “apply the law fairly and evenly, and then allow the marketplace to work.”
“I believe the corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits under the law, period. As somebody that believes in free market economics, I believe that the common good is advanced when businesses are pursuing that objective,” he said.
As for arguments from some on the right that big corporations and “woke capitalism” are waging war on conservatives, Pence said that the fight over environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG, investments is the more appropriate and effective way to deal with that.
Earlier this month the Senate overturned a Labor Department rule that allowed retirement fund managers to consider ESG factors when investing for pension plans. President Biden has said he will veto the resolution.
“That’s the right fight in making sure that capital is available without being filtered through a left-wing agenda. ... I think we wrote the first major piece on it a year ago,” Pence said, referring to a Wall Street Journal op-ed he published, which he indicated predated DeSantis’s embrace of the issue. “Others, I’m glad, have taken up the cause and made the fight.”
In other words, Pence’s case is that he is a workhorse and DeSantis is a show horse. (A DeSantis spokesperson pointed to the Florida governor’s decision in December 2021 to move state pension money away from managers who “may pursue social ideologies inconsistent with the state’s values or the financial interests of the state’s investments.”)
Pence is far behind DeSantis in public polling (and in book sales), and his shots at the governor reflect a growing consensus among other 2024 GOP hopefuls that there is a danger the primary becomes a two-person contest if they don’t move to knock DeSantis down a few pegs. Pence’s Gridiron speech was also a move to seize attention and assert continued relevance, according to Politico.
When it comes to America’s involvement in Ukraine, Pence has taken a more hawkish position than both Trump and DeSantis, not to mention Biden as well.
It’s an easy political contrast. But what about the argument from some on the right that Russia’s military has been exposed as less imposing than had been thought, so why risk direct confrontation with another nuclear power?
“I’ve met Vladimir Putin. I’ve looked him right in the eye,” Pence said, echoing the infamous words of former President George W. Bush, who stood next to the Russian president in 2001 and said he “looked the man in the eye” and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”
“Let me tell you, anybody that thinks if he took all of Ukraine that he would stop at Ukraine should think again,” Pence said. “Putin’s ambition is to reclaim the old Soviet sphere of influence.
“The only pathway toward stability in Eastern Europe is to meet the moment with American strength, give the Ukrainians what they need to repel the Russian invasion. That is also the most effective way to discourage China’s ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, particularly with regard to Taiwan,” he said.
Pence added this sobering note: “If we don’t meet this moment with American strength, the rest of the 21st century could look a whole lot more like the first half of the 20th century.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Phil Sears, Caroline Brehman/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock, Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images)