Where has Vice President Mike Pence been for the past month?
As COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to surge nationally, I’ve been looking for Pence, the man tasked with guiding America through this public health crisis as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Sure, I’ve seen him honor our nation's fallen soldiers during a Veterans Day ceremony. He made a cameo at a campaign rally in Georgia, stumping to secure Republican seats in the Senate. I also watched him swear in Arizona’s newest U.S. senator on Wednesday.
So let me be more specific: What I’ve been looking for is public-facing leadership from Pence as America grapples with an out-of-control pandemic. Just because President Donald Trump won't do it doesn't mean that Pence shouldn't. He must.
I want a vice president who is sending daily reminders to wear masks, socially distance and avoid crowds — and reinforcing that message by leading by example. I want a vice president who is working day and night to help negotiate with Congress a viable stimulus package for those teetering on the edge of financial ruin. I want a vice president who is actively coordinating with our country's governors to create detailed safety guidelines specific to each state. I want a vice president who is working with the U.S. military to deploy assistance — both medical and infrastructural — to rural and urban areas being decimated by the virus. I want to see charts and graphs and action.
Gone are the days of our vice president walking us through the coronavirus numbers at news briefings or touting the administration’s response to the deadly virus. Instead, as Trump flails about, floating baseless voter fraud claims — displaying utter disrespect and contempt for America’s electoral process — Pence has shrunk into the shadows.
I understand that Pence might be licking his Election Day wounds, but a pandemic is still raging and lives are at stake. Until Thursday, when the vice president traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to hold a roundtable discussion on distributing a COVID-19 vaccine, you'd think he had simply thrown in the towel, at least publicly.
With such a void in leadership from the White House, it seems Americans have largely been left to fend for ourselves. If there ever was a signal that record numbers of voters made the right choice on Nov. 3, this untimely abandonment is certainly it.
The irony is as sad as it is dangerous: Trump won’t concede that he lost the election, and Pence seemingly has ceded his willingness to serve as America's pandemic pilot — just as the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warning our darkest days are upon us, predicted that the United States could reach 450,000 deaths by February.
"The reality is, December and January and February are going to be rough times, and I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of our nation, largely because of the stress it’s going to put on our public health system," Dr. Robert Redfield said Wednesday at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event.
Pence could be committing the biggest political misstep of his career if he continues to sit on the sidelines as COVID-19 cases and deaths soar. There are seven crucial weeks left before the burden of the pandemic falls squarely on the shoulders of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. If there was ever a time for Pence to stand up in the face of Trump's petulance and exhibit compassion and urgency for the American people, it is now. In our darkest days, it's not too late for Pence to at least try to implement a comprehensive plan that bridges administrations and saves lives.
An eye on the White House
Pence’s political ambitions are no secret; insiders say he has had an eye on the White House even as he served as governor of Indiana. Being tapped as Trump’s No. 2 all but guaranteed him a shot at America’s highest office. And for the past four years, Pence has marched in lockstep with Trump.
Things got messy when Trump and Pence were trounced in the presidential election, and Trump became unwilling to accept that fate. He has repeatedly and falsely declared that he beat Biden and that the election was rigged. Pence has been rightly cautious to not echo Trump’s claims of victory and has said little publicly about the results.
“We are going to keep fighting until every legal vote is counted and until every illegal vote is thrown out,” Pence said in a speech on Nov. 13 to conservative youth in Virginia. “And whatever the outcome at the end of the process, I promise you: We will never stop fighting to make America great again.”
Pence, 61, who served as a former U.S. House member and chairman of the House Republican Conference, before becoming Indiana's governor, has lived a life of public service. He does not own a house nor has he amassed much personal wealth.
Jon Thompson, who served as Pence's campaign spokesman, said for the next four years Pence has the opportunity to undertake some money-making ventures such as writing a book, just as many vice presidents and presidents before him have done. Pence could also join the lucrative speaking circuit, Thompson said.
Pence will have a record to defend — including his high-profile assignment as head of the coronavirus taskforce — and will forever be tied to Trump. Thompson does not find that alliance to be a negative because Trump still has around a 95% approval rating within the Republican Party. He envisions Pence spending some of his political capital helping get other Republicans elected. Thompson noted the 36 gubernatorial races and 33 U.S. Senate races in 2022 where Pence could play a big role. But if Trump runs again in 2024 as he has floated, that could knock Pence off the path to the presidency.
"If President Trump announces he's running for 2024, it could and probably will immediately freeze the field," Thompson said. "But four years is still a long time. Vice President Pence has the blessing of time on choosing if he wants to run or not for president. He can try to move back to Indiana, he can travel the country. He can attend Republican events and fundraisers and give speeches. He can keep an active and high profile. And I think that's something he'll probably do over these next few years, whether he chooses to run for president or not."
Pence is a savvy politician; some would say he's even calculating. As a former member of the IndyStar Editorial Board, I have written about Pence's leadership inadequacies and poor choices since arriving in Indiana in 2015. But I sometimes struggle to recognize what he has become. For a man who describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," it appears his compassion is lacking. When I talk with Hoosiers, there's an underlying sentiment: Pence has sold his soul to the devil for political gain.
If I'm being honest, I care less about his political journey than I do about how Americans are suffering during this pandemic. We need sound leadership, and if ambition and image is what motivates Pence, then I'm all for it.
Because Pence doesn't need to wait for a potential presidency to lead. He has an obligation right now to this country. Step out of the shadows and lead, Mr. Vice President.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Mike Pence still leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force?