Opinion: Mike Pence and the long road out of the 2020 election
By comparing Mike Pence with Al Gore a decade earlier, we can walk the difficult road they faced in conceding elections and preserving the peaceful transfer of power.
President Ronald Reagan began his first inaugural address in 1981 by reminding us that “the orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”
Obviously, the miracle was severely tested on Jan. 6-7, 2021. Joe Biden was only certified as the winner of the 2020 presidential election, you will recall, after a day and night of chaos and violence at the U.S. Capitol. Rioters erected makeshift gallows and chanted “hang Mike Pence” as others flooded the halls of Congress in search of the vice president, NPR reported, “to thwart the peaceful transfer of power that has been a hallmark of modern American history.”
That “dark day,” as Pence later called it, marked the second time in the 21st century that a vice president, while presiding over the tallying of electoral votes, had to quell efforts to overturn the results of a tumultuous presidential election.
Al Gore set the path for Mike Pence 10 years earlier
In 2001, Vice President Al Gore oversaw the most humbling of certifications — his own unsuccessful bid for the presidency in the closest election in American history. “Words like ‘fraud’ and ‘disenfranchisement’ could be heard above the din of Republicans calling for ‘regular order.’” Repeatedly, he was forced to gavel down members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others who tried to block the tallying of Florida’s 25 highly contested and crucial electoral votes that made George W. Bush the nation’s 43rd president.
Despite the rancor in the cavernous House chamber, Gore carried out his constitutional duty “with grace and humor.” Three weeks earlier, a day after the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote in Bush v. Gore, stopped manual recounts in Florida that effectively delivered the election to Bush, Gore ended his quest for the presidency. In conceding, Gore said he “strongly disagreed” with the Supreme Court decision, but accepted “the finality of this outcome” and “partisan rancor must now be put aside.” “This is America, and we put country before party.”
Although a bare majority of Americans agreed with the Bush v. Gore decision, a Gallup Poll immediately afterwards found that 8 in 10 voters accepted Bush as the “legitimate” president. Clearly, how Gore handled himself following the determinative Supreme Court ruling and the electoral count had a significant effect.
Mike Pence in the face of the 2020 election
How differently might history have played out on Jan. 6, 2021, if Donald Trump had not refused to concede? The Boston Globe suggested an unprecedented alternative, “Mike Pence should concede the election. ... Doing so would help restore public trust in the electoral process and close the door on Trump’s assault on American democracy.”
While Pence did not concede, he resisted the pressure being exerted on him to try to single-handedly overturn the election. In their book “Peril,” Bob Woodward and Robert Costa write that Pence first reached out to former Vice President Dan Quayle, a fellow Indiana Republican, who told him not to even entertain the idea of blocking Biden’s election when Congress certified the final electoral count.
Instead, Pence rewrote the vice presidential script for publicly counting electoral votes. Together with his top aides, he crafted 43 additional words that would clearly address the push by Trump allies “for false slates of presidential electors.” Even after the storming of the U.S. Capitol, Pence pursued his resolve to not be pressured into overturning the election.
Mike Pence in his finest hour
Still for months Trump continued to claim Pence “could have overturned the Election,” Finally, in early February 2022, the former vice president publicly declared, “President Trump is wrong, I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. And frankly there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Afterwards, The Wall Street Journal praised Pence for refusing to succumb to “Mr. Trump’s pressure. ... It was Mr. Pence’s finest hour.” In subsequent days, most Americans also sided with Pence according to CBS News/YouGov and Quinnipiac University polls released after his speech in Orlando, Florida.
America needs a peaceful transition of power
Irrespective of our party affiliation, we are all Americans. We must never forget what President Reagan said about the importance of our peaceful, orderly constitutional transfer of power. Al Gore and Mike Pence, in certainly one their most painful moments in public office, upheld their constitutional oath even when it is not politically expedient.
If we are not willing to accept election results, how is power to be passed from one leader to another in a law-abiding society in which the will of the voters governs?
Stephen W. Stathis for nearly four decades was a specialist in American history with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress from the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.”