Mike Pence just crashed his political career into Donald Trump – and the former President’s ongoing claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent and should have been overturned on January 6.
“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said in a speech to a conservative group in Florida. “Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and (Vice President) Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”
Two things are true about Pence’s statements:
1) He is 100% correct that under the Constitution, he had no legal authority to disqualify electors from certain states solely because Trump said he should.
2) He likely doomed whatever small chance he had at the presidency – at least in the near term – by saying what he said.
This is the ridiculous reality of the present-day Republican Party on full display. A party long built around an adoration of the Constitution is rejecting that very document because Trump tells them to. Rather than celebrating Pence for sticking to his guns as a constitutional conservative, the Trump base of the party will castigate him for not single-handedly seeking to overturn the results of a national election.
“You’re going to carry this thing eventually to your grave, because it is a mark of shame and you are a stone-cold coward,” Steve Bannon, a one-time political adviser to Trump, said of Pence on his podcast.
Trump himself was only slightly more measured, releasing a statement calling Pence an “automatic conveyor belt” designed to “get Biden elected President as quickly as possible.”
Here’s the thing: No matter what you think of Pence – and he spent four years as Trump’s “yes” man – what he did in asserting that the former President was wrong in his claims about January 6, 2021, was an act of political bravery.
Pence is no dummy. He is well aware of where the party stands at the moment. Polls show a majority of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent (there is no evidence to back up that belief) and the Republican National Committee just passed a resolution that describes what occurred on January 6 as “legitimate political discourse.”
This is Trump’s party. What’s more, it’s a cult of personality built around the whims and wants of the former President. Disagreement with Trump – even if you have the facts or even the Constitution on your side – is not tolerated. You are either with Trump on his wild conspiracy theory that the election was stolen from him, or you are his (and the base’s) mortal enemy.
In saying what he said, Pence guaranteed that he will never be the preferred candidate of the Trump base. (In truth, the former vice president may have forsaken that chance once and for all when he certified the 2020 election results.) At least at present, there is no path to the next Republican presidential nomination that doesn’t go directly through Trump and Trumpism.
Is it possible that if Trump runs and loses again in 2024, Republicans will have the sort of reckoning many thought would happen following his 2020 defeat? Sure. And if that comes to pass, it’s possible that Pence’s decision to uphold the Constitution rather than cave to Trump will look like a noble sacrifice that could endear him to GOP voters looking to move on from the former President.
But that’s a BIG “if.” At the moment, there is no Republican Party distinct from Trump. Which means that what Pence did in saying Trump was (and is) flat wrong about overturning the vote amounts to a likely political death sentence for the former vice president.
Pence seemed to acknowledge in his speech Friday what he was doing to his own chances. “Whatever the future holds, I know we did our duty that day. I believe the time has come to focus on the future,” he said.
While Pence’s four years of cozying up to Trump – and allowing his worst instincts to run rampant in Washington – can’t (and shouldn’t) be forgotten, what he did in rejecting Trump’s false election claims so publicly is rightly understood as an act of political courage. And one that, given the current state of the Republican Party, likely puts an end to Pence’s presidential ambitions for now.