In November 2016, after Mike Pence had gotten closer to the White House than Mitt Romney ever would, the vice president-elect pulled him aside with some advice. Romney had just met with Donald Trump about serving as his secretary of state. Getting there would be tough. But Romney could improve his odds if he groveled.
“It would be really helpful if you went out to the media after this meeting,” Pence told Romney, “and just said you were wrong, and that what you’ve learned has given you much more confidence in him being president.”
Romney didn’t do it. He described the conversation, years later, to author McKay Coppins, whose biography of the Utah senator landed just as Pence wrapped up his 2024 campaign. Both men ended their careers in Republican politics by defying Trump, both after deciding that there was no moral or legal way to go along with his demands.
Pence’s exit, and Romney’s bridge-burning cooperation with Coppins, signaled the end of two kinds of Trump resistance, neither of which proved successful.
For eight years, a small wing of the party warned that the 45th president was amoral, that he abused power, and that he had thrown out their generational project of trimming entitlements in service of an incoherent populist agenda. Another, larger group stayed their criticism and tried to influence Trump as public allies, but waited patiently for Republican voters to someday rise up and demand an off-ramp to more traditional conservative politics.
It never happened. The political approach the anti-Trump GOP used — traditional media access, warnings of fiscal doomsday, safety at home through foreign military intervention — was outdated, even before Pence announced his candidacy in June.
“I don’t think that Mike Pence’s particular brand of Reagan-type conservatism is as popular as it was,” said Steve Scheffler, an RNC committeeman from Iowa, who had known Pence for years. “I think Pence was exactly right when he said that Medicare and Social Security, if you don’t reform them, will go broke. Unfortunately, a lot of voters don’t want to hear it.”
The old GOP’s dream of rejecting Trump has died a few times this year — first when his criminal indictments strengthened him with primary voters, then when he clearly benefited by skipping the party’s debates. Pence’s campaign may have peaked with the first debate, in Milwaukee, when he drew praise for his feisty performance and every candidate onstage agreed that he had been right not to overturn the 2020 election.
The long-term impact of that? Pence’s support shrunk, and Trump’s lead over the field expanded.
That was a familiar sequence of events for Romney. His 2016 speech denouncing Trump, before Super Tuesday, did absolutely nothing to slow the candidate down — and bolstered his argument that the GOP establishment, stuffed with losers, was against him. His votes for both Trump impeachments, which he hoped could change minds, just arrayed Republicans against him. By 2021, the Club for Growth was running attack ads against Republicans who’d praised Romney when he was their party’s nominee; by last year, conservatives in Utah primaries were accusing rivals of being “Mitt Romney Republicans,” threatening the GOP from within.
All this was possible because Romney lost — and, for Pence, because he was the only member of the Trump-Pence ticket who conceded that Joe Biden won.
In “Romney,” Coppins recalls how strange and exciting it was to see “the machinery of partisanship” click in once he became the 2012 nominee; he was “reciting the exact same lines he’d recited hundreds of times before, only now people were going crazy.” His favorable numbers hit catastrophic lows in Gallup polling during the divisive GOP primary, but rebounded quickly afterwards, as Republicans rallied to his side.
That’s what happened with Trump, as the new voters he brought into politics mingled with the diehard Republicans who wanted to beat the Democrats — only by winning, he solidified the trend. Pence tried to work inside the new movement; Romney worked outside of it, even studying where he could back a third party in 2016. (He ended up writing in his wife, Ann, for president.)
What got lost? One big-if-unexciting answer is entitlement reform. Among the least-quoted warnings in Romney’s March 2016 Trump speech: “His tax plan in combination with his refusal to reform entitlements and honestly address spending would balloon the deficit and the national debt.”
That was what happened; Reagan-style deficit spending disconnected from Reagan’s willingness to raise taxes or cut entitlements. And there has been zero interest in revisiting the Romney-Ryan agenda since then; Pence launched his campaign with specific plans to curtail Medicare and Social Security spending, and got nowhere, as Trump was attacking Ron DeSantis for the very same ideas.
The party’s foreign policy also moved further and further away from its pre-Trump position. Both Romney and Pence have spent the last year pushing the party to stand with Ukraine, a no-brainer for two politicians whose politics were shaped by once-standard Cold War conservatism that emphasized big defense spending and strong alliances to head off aggression from Russia. Trump’s skepticism of NATO and Russia-curious instincts, now backed by an influential conservative media ecosystem, have continued to remake the party in the years since he left office.
“Will Republicans continue to be the party of the traditional conservative, that has defined our movement over the last 50 years?” Pence asked in his speech suspending his campaign. “Or will our party follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?”
The View From Social Conservatives
Seven years ago, the presence of Pence on the ticket reassured conservative voters; some who had serious moral qualms about Trump could tell themselves that they were really voting for Pence. Ralph Reed, the president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, called Pence’s fate “sad,” but probably inevitable.
“I think he was part of Team Trump, so running against Trump was just more than the system could bear,” Reed said.
Pence’s presence in 2016 was considered especially important because of Trump’s weak track record on abortion, the one issue that was considered make-or-break to the base, even for Trump. In the end, Trump’s justices overturned Roe v. Wade, but Pence’s campaign sputtered with a resolutely anti-abortion message while Trump easily kept the base. He decried 6-week bans in states like Iowa, vaguely promised “something” that would bring “peace” on the issue, and blamed social conservatives for blowing the midterms – and paid no penalty. In a direct faceoff between Trump and top anti-abortion groups, there was no longer any doubt who held sway over the grassroots moving forward.
Coppins, who also profiled Pence in 2018, summed up his fate memorably earlier this year: “In creating a permission structure for voters to excuse Trump’s defective character and flouting of religious values, Pence was unwittingly making himself irrelevant,” he wrote. “In effect, he spent four years convincing conservative Christian voters that the very thing he had to offer them didn’t matter.”
In Politico, one week before Pence ended his campaign, Adam Wren captures how it had become “simply an effort to woo the party married to Trump back to Reaganism.”
In The Federalist, Mark Hemingway isn’t impressed by Romney’s self-mythologizing, about a career that “petered out in a hail of grievances.”
In Time, Matthew Continetti argues that the election of House Speaker Mike Johnson signaled the end of the Reagan GOP (and Romney GOP): The new one is “down-market, confrontational, politically incorrect, suspicious of institutional authority, and uninterested in following rules set by liberals.”