The Conscience of Mike Pence
The good, the bad, and the ugly
Vice President Mike Pence arrives at the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
“President Trump is wrong,” said Pence, in his remarks before the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. “I had no right to overturn the election.”
So what do we make of this? Too little, too late? Weak and insufficient? Or a tiny step back toward… sanity? Choose your adventure.
Let’s break down the ugly, the bad, and the good in Pence’s statement — keeping in mind that all of these hot takes can be true, but also inadequate explanations.
Pence did not explicitly say that Trump had lost the election or refute the former president’s many lies about voter fraud. He did not denounce Trump’s role in inciting the violence that included calls to “Hang Pence!” — or his recent attempts to ret-con the attack on Capitol. He said nothing about the faked or forged electoral votes or the suggestions that the government seize voting machines. So Joe Walsh has a point:
Obviously Pence wants to keep straddling. As the NYT notes:
The carefully constructed wording of his rebuke shows an effort by Mr. Pence to defend his own actions on Jan. 6, while not completely alienating a Republican base that remains animated by conspiracy theories of a stolen election.
In the past, Pence has actually tried to downplay the significance of January 6. So Michael Beschloss has a point:
When it counted the most, Pence refused to speak out. So Amanda Carpenter has a point.
Throughout Trump’s impeachment, Pence remained mute. As someone who could provide both important facts—what did Trump know about the situation, when, and what was his reaction—and bear witness to Trump’s state of mind in the days and hours leading up to the attack, Pence was in a rare, possibly even unique, position. Over the course of the weeks following the election, Pence had been a perpetrator of Trump’s big election lie and at the final hour became a target of it. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who was one of the 10 House Republicans to vote for impeachment and who came forward with her blockbuster testimony during the Senate trial, begged Pence to share what he knew.
And then there was the awkward timing of his remarks on Friday. Sonny Bunch has a point:
No, Pence did not come to the defense of Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger and he did not denounce the RNC’s resolution that calls the January 6 Insurrection “legitimate political discourse.” He also did not pledge to cooperate with the January 6 committee, or say that he would not support Trump in 2024. So Bill Kristol has a point:
Also: Pence’s comments were not, strictly speaking, anything new. As Philip Bump points out, Pence’s real moment of political courage came on January 6, 2021, when he refused to go along with Trump’s demands that he overturn the election.
Back then Pence wrote: "“Some believe that as Vice President, I should be able to accept or reject electoral votes unilaterally. Others believe that electoral votes should never be challenged in a Joint Session of Congress. After a careful study of our Constitution, our laws, and our history, I believe neither view is correct.”
On Friday, he said the same thing, but this time he rebuked Trump by name.
“The difference between what he said on Jan. 6 and on Friday is solely in clarity,” writes Bump. “Then he said Trump was wrong and now he says Trump was wrong.”
Bump notes that much of the exuberant reaction to Pence’s denunciation is really just the latest example of the the punditocracy’s penchant for wish-casting:
So much of the political commentariat is looking for smudged fingerprints on a crowbar found near the scene of a break-in even as that crowbar is clearly labeled “property of Donald Trump” and Trump is selling a bunch of obviously stolen merchandise at a yard sale across the street….
It was this comment from Trump that was the predicate for Pence’s switch from passive to active disagreement with his former boss. Here’s Pence, giving the crowd what it wants: not Joseph Welch saying “have you no sense of decency?” but someone performing the role of Welch saying that. At last, here was a moment the audience had been awaiting, Pence turning on Trump! Except he already did, back when it mattered. Focusing on spindly little trees obscures the breadth of the forest.
But he did it. He said the words: “Trump is wrong.”
“The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president."
As ABC’s Jonathan Karl notes, that was kind of a BFD. “Mike Pence... for the first time uttering the words... Donald Trump is wrong, just finally coming out and saying it. Donald Trump is wrong from the loyal vice president, the most loyal person to Donald Trump... It's an extraordinary moment."
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan was happy about it.
And Steve Bannon was very unhappy.
So what should we make of this? Should we welcome Pence to the resistance, or should we continue to hold him accountable for his years of slavish collaborationism? Or is it possible to do both?
If the point is keeping score, Pence’s latest gesture is obviously inadequate. But if the goal is actually turning the tide and saving democracy, maybe we should make some allowances.
Let’s admit it: this is not an easy call. But desperate times…
I’m conscious of the dangers of defining deviancy down and the risks of lowest-common denominator political standards. There’s a good reason we do not hand out gold stars for people who refuse to run down old ladies, rob banks, or engage in coups. So Pence’s decision to actually obey the Constitution hardly merits a red badge of courage, because it clears the lowest possible bar.
But look how far that bar has fallen.
In times of thorough depravity, even the smallest shoots of decency seem important. Sometimes clearing the lowest possible bar is all we can hope for.
At best, Pence has opened only the most miniscule of cracks in the solid wall of Trumpist toadying. But those cracks may prove decisive as we confront the ongoing attempts to delegitimize and overturn our next presidential election. He may also have provided a permission structure for others to speak out.
That matters because, ultimately, it may turn out to be Republicans — even former Trump supporters — who will have to a make the final stand against the next coup.
When right-wing lawmakers there pushed a bill that would have given the Republican-controlled Legislature the power to unilaterally reject the results of an election and force a new one, Rusty Bowers said no.
For decades, Bowers, the unassuming speaker of the Arizona House, has represented die-hard Republican beliefs, supporting the kinds of low-tax, limited-government policies that made the state’s Barry Goldwater a conservative icon.
Bowers could have sat on the bill, letting it die a quiet death. Instead, he killed it through an aggressive legislative maneuver that left even veteran statehouse watchers in Arizona awe-struck at its audacity.
“The speaker wanted to put the wooden cross right through the heart of this thing for all to see,” said Stan Barnes, a Republican consultant who has known Bowers for some 30 years.
I had some thoughts
For some Republicans, Trump’s fixation on the previous election is also a potential trap. They believe the party could make big gains in this year’s midterm elections by campaigning on issues such as high inflation, instead of the former president’s personal gripes. “Republicans keep saying ‘we want to move on’, they keep saying ‘we want to focus on the issues’. And by the way, they’re doing very well,” says Charlie Sykes, editor-in-chief of the Bulwark, a conservative newsletter. “And here’s Trump out there constantly airing his own personal grievances and re-litigating 2020. And I think that there’s some frustration, some irritation out there”. …
For Sykes, any hopes of Trump’s demise within the Republican party seem optimistic and still trigger memories of 2015, when he was expected to be toppled but never was. And yet a subtle change may be under way. “I’ve seen this guy come back from one thing after another, right? But it is worth watching — whether or not we’re seeing some Trump fatigue setting in.”
An appeal (and an invitation) to Bulwark readers
ICYMI, JVL wrote this week:
I don’t view Bulwark readers as customers, but as partners. We’re a mission-oriented operation, which is why we make most of what we do public. You get to read most of what we write for free because we can’t save democracy from behind a paywall.
The people who join Bulwark+ do it because they want to be part of the mission. And because of them we could afford to bring Will Saletan on with us. And as a tease: I’ll have another addition to The Bulwark bullpen to announce in a few days.
The Bulwark is incredibly lean. We don’t spend a dime on advertising or Facebook subscription acquisition because we want every dollar to go to the actual product—the stuff you read and listen to.
Which means that every single member of Bulwark+ came to us organically: Because they were reading a newsletter, or a piece on the website, or listening to one of our podcasts. People join Bulwark+ because they see what we were doing and want to be part of it.
So here’s my ask: If you join Bulwark+ you get a bunch of extras. There is The Secret Podcast—newly expanded to twice weekly, the Thursday night livestream, every issue of my Triad newsletter, and the ability to engage in our comments community.
But the extras aren’t why most people join Bulwark+. They do it because they support the mission. Because they care about democracy. Because they want to be part of building a better, healthier politics.
I hope you’ll consider joining Bulwark+ today. It’s a lot of money. I get that. But what you’re spending it on isn’t back-of-the-house bloat or clickbait BS. You’re supporting writers like Will Saletan.
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We Get Mail
Keep your rants, raves, darts, and laurels coming to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am writing in response to George Packer’s appearance on The Bulwark. I was quite taken by the account, as it mirrors my own experiences: I too assisted in the evacuations of Kabul, have been stymied by the SIV process, and have now taken things into my own hands.
There is one group however that was not addressed- indeed, no one in the media has covered them to my knowledge. The entity to which I am referring is the National Mine Reduction Group: specially trained Afghan counter-IED specialists (minesweepers) who worked solely for US Special Operations Forces (SOF). In other words, they cleared the way for Green Berets and Navy SEALs. Were the SIV program functioning in any appreciably appropriate manner, they are the “no-brainers” for immigration given their exceptional sacrifice, advancement of American interests and safeguarding of American troops. I myself was a beneficiary of their capabilities; one of them found an IED on the same spot I was intending to setup a sniper position. I have been able to fundraise to keep some of those left behind going- now I am looking to build a larger awareness to their plight.
As for my own background, I departed the Army in August after 13 years of service, a decade of which was as a Green Beret, to pursue a career in medicine. I am now the director of Team 11, a non-profit geared towards providing aid to former NMRG members, as well as SOF-affiliated interpreters. One of my detachment's former interpreters, Mahdi, was among those fortunate to make it out in August. He also happened to settle down about 20 miles away from me, and is now the absolute linchpin to our operation, as he enables me to communicate with those in Afghanistan in real-time.
“40,000 principal SIV applicants” was the figure cited on the Bulwark. I doubt there are more than 500 NMRG. Also, as they fell under the auspices of US Special Operations, few Afghan employees were subjected to the same level of vetting and background checks that they were. Lastly, in terms of service, I doubt any unit of the US military has contributed what they have: With a typical rotation being “one-on, one-off”, the longest tenured NMRG members had the equivalent 13 Special Forces deployments. Unfortunately, their casualty figures were correspondingly high.
To my mind, aiding the NMRG is a natural route- one could almost say "easy button"- to repaying our collective debt to the Afghan people. The thing lacking now is awareness. Journalistically speaking, the NMRG program is unchartered territory- I would love to help introduce it to a wider audience so that I can get my guys out from underneath the Taliban.