Mike Pence's very bad week

Story highlights

  • Medicaid policy could have helped Mike Pence build a national brand
  • But missteps took attention away from the policy

Washington (CNN)It should have been Mike Pence's strongest moment as Indiana governor -- a chance to showcase his style of executive leadership on the national stage. Instead, the week turned into a calamity of Team Pence's own making.

The leaked details of a bizarre proposal to create what sounded like a state government-run news agency sucked all the oxygen out of Indiana's political media, right when Pence was supposed to explain a complicated conservative approach he's taking to expanding Medicaid. Pence immediately backtracked, but the damage was already done.
It amounted to a very bad week for Pence at a time when other candidates took clear steps toward 2016 runs for the White House.
    After two years of complex negotiations, the Indiana governor was poised to claim a major victory. The Republican who'd once made his mark on Capitol Hill lambasting President Barack Obama's health care law had struck a deal with the White House to expand Medicaid, but on the governor's terms. Pence would get to make a series of reforms to the program -- and if it worked, he could tout them nationally as a new conservative model.
    As opposed to walking tall, Pence suffered a public relations gaffe that upended the news cycle.
    His communications staff had made plans for a new website dubbed "Just IN." As Pence says he understood it, the site would just be a clearing house for press releases and state reports. But an internal memo took the description much further, detailing the roles of a managing editor and an editorial board and indicating the site would publish feature stories and would sometimes break news ahead of independent journalists.
    Indiana Gov. Mike Pence
    The short-term embarrassment hurt Pence, but the longer-term cost could be greater: He lost his chance to explain his Medicaid moves to conservatives who hate everything about Obamacare.
    Even if Pence can explain the mistake, the stumble has put more distance between him and what already would have been a dark-horse run in a crowded 2016 field.
    "If you're going to get into a race, from today moving forward, it would have be to fill a void that exists," said Chuck Laudner, an Iowa Republican strategist and the national campaign coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. "There's really no one scrambling for a candidate that expands Medicaid and makes it harder to repeal Obamacare. So it's going to be very tricky."

    Ill-timed distraction

    The notion of a state government-run news agency was harmful enough, earning Pence headlines like "Pravda on the Plains" and comparisons to Chinese and North Korean state media. Indiana's Republican House speaker, Brian Bosma, even taunted Pence a bit, joking that he'd ordered Rosetta Stone in Russian and ending an interview by saying: "Dasvidaniya!"
    But there was another big problem: Pence really needed the oxygen those stories sucked up to explain his Medicaid expansion.
    After all, he was joining New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich on the list of potential 2016 candidates who broke ranks with other conservatives who'd rejected Obamacare outright. And while those governors had argued the money was just too much to pass up, Pence's claim was bigger: He'd found the conservative solutions to Medicaid's woes.
    It's a tough sell to his party's base -- and as soon as Pence announced the expansion, conservatives started piling on.
    Chase Downham, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity's Indiana director and typically among Pence's biggest allies, said that "the price of reforming traditional Medicaid should not come at the cost of expanding an already troubled entitlement program."
    "Myopic Republican governors think they can fool conservatives by gaining token concessions on what remains a government-run healthcare program and calling it 'free market reform,'" wrote the Washington Examiner's Phllip Klein.
    "This major betrayal should have consequences if he decides to run as president," wrote the Mercatus Center's conservative thinker Veronique De Rugy for the National Review Online.
    This isn't the first time conservatives who loved Pence-the-congressman have felt double-crossed by Pence-the-governor.
    Shortly after being elected in 2012, he decided to scrap the state's involvement in Common Core. But the standards his administration proposed to replace them were almost identical. They were more of a rebranding, many conservatives complained -- just slapping a new name onto what Pence himself had called a bad idea.


    Pence hasn't ruled out a run for president, saying he'll make a decision after Indiana's state legislative session wraps at the end of April -- and he still has his supporters.
    His pollster, Kellyanne Conway, said that while some candidates might not be able to do much to portray likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as inaccessible, rich and out of touch, someone like Pence could be a "lesser-known but better foil for a Clinton candidacy than a true clash of the Titans."
    Rex Elsass, an Ohio media consultant who's aligned with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for 2016 but worked on Pence's 2012 governor's race, touted Pence as a strong vice presidential choice, too -- saying his 12 years in Congress and four as an executive are the perfect combination.
    "He's somebody who speaks to the heart of people, and has a leadership quality and a charisma that would be an incredible asset to anybody who was the nominee," Elsass said.