Analysis: This is the biggest moment of Mike Pence’s career — and the future of the GOP
The evening will serve as the first window into a potential Pence presidential candidacy and thus a GOP in the wake of Trump.
Wednesday’s debate between vice presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris and incumbent VP Mike Pence has a lot riding on it. For one, it’s the immediate follow-up to what could be considered the worst presidential debate of all time, and both candidates will likely feel a heavy responsibility to have the first substantial policy discussion of this general election cycle. For another, both of them are running at the bottom of tickets led by men in their 70s, both of whom would be the oldest presidents ever elected — and others have already commented that the pandemic throws into sharp focus the sobering reality that these candidates are only one heartbeat away from the presidency.
But for Pence in particular, the evening will serve another purpose: as the first window into a potential Pence presidential candidacy and thus a GOP in the wake of Donald Trump.
Unlike the VP debate in 2016, the end of the Trump era is now in sight. Make no mistake, Pence will still be campaigning hard for Trump this time around, but this’ll be the last time he’s in an election spotlight before he’s running for president himself — and he’ll want to make an impression. And as the likely frontrunner in a 2024 Republican primary, the impression he leaves tonight will have an enormous impact on what the party might look like after Trump.
To be sure, Joe Biden’s age and questionable cognitive ability indicate that Harris will also use this debate as an audition to lead her party in the not-so-distant future. But Harris and Biden are more or less cut from the same cloth. The undeniable fact is that Pence’s White House forebear has shaken up his party far more than Harris’ ever has his, and that party’s future is at present wildly uncertain.
What would a Pence GOP look like? Like the man himself — calm, resolute, religious, socially conservative to the great ire of progressives? Those are all qualities easily attributed to the Republican Party before Trump, but it remains to be seen how seamlessly it could transition back to such a state under Pence. What will the GOP have learned from Trump, for good or ill? And what will the tone of Pence’s sparring with Harris this evening say about the future of bipartisanship and civil rhetoric?
The undeniable fact is that Pence’s White House forebear has shaken up his party far more than Harris’ ever has his, and that party’s future is at present wildly uncertain.
Of course, even though the Republican Party might be officially, legally done with the Donald within the next four years, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be done with Trumpism. Pence would obviously not disavow his role in the current administration, and he would inevitably have challengers in the 2024 primary: Folks like Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tom Cotton and maybe an ambitious wild card like Gov. Kristi Noem would each bring their own Trumpian aftertaste to the table.
The party may even see a second outsider emerge — perhaps another twice-divorced business magnate with a flagrant disregard for rules and a penchant for passionate tweets about lockdowns in liberal states (Elon Musk?) — to fill the populist void. But unlike Trump in 2016, that hypothetical outsider would be running against a respected, beloved (potentially sitting) vice president, who probably couldn’t imitate Trump’s bellicosity if he tried. And that kind of influence carries political and cultural weight, perhaps just heavy enough to outweigh a resurgence of brash populism.
Whatever the case in 2024, tonight will be telling. As the senator from California perhaps prematurely argues the case for a “Harris administration, together with Joe Bien,” (as she gaffed in a virtual roundtable) the vice president will be more subtly laying the groundwork for his own future — and the future of a party he might reshape in his own mild-mannered image.