Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It seems former Vice President Mike Pence wants his boss’ old job – the one former President Donald Trump himself is trying to reclaim in 2024.
At a CNN town hall on Wednesday, Pence said he believed there would be “better choices” than Trump going into 2024. But Pence was coy about whether those better choices might include him. “I’ll keep you posted,” he said.
Should Pence throw his hat in the ring, however, Trump will inevitably hit him with repeated accusations of disloyalty, given Pence’s role in certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
But Pence seems to be devising a rope-a-dope strategy, which might allow him to slip past Trump’s attacks by reminding voters of his close ties to the former president. “He was the right man at the right time, and it was my honor to serve alongside him,” Pence said before later adding, “He was my president, he was my friend.” It might be a good defensive move. But given the chance, can Pence deliver a knockout punch? It is doubtful.
After four years of sitting idly by while Trump savaged American democracy, Pence is now using his publicity tour for a new memoir to appeal to Republican voters. But Pence seems to want it both ways, declaring a “new season in America” of respect and civility while also defending the Trump administration and his role in it – even if it “did not end well.”
Instead of delving more deeply into his record as congressman and governor of Indiana, Pence took on the tone of a gentle pastor on Wednesday and referenced his faith and the Bible ad nauseum. And like an old-style politician, he also deflected a number of questions.
He didn’t offer a meaningful explanation when Jake Tapper asked him about the support he provided to two Republican candidates who denied the validity of the 2020 election outcome – which Pence fully accepts. He seemed to gloss over their differences, adding that he was trying to support the party and the candidates that Republican primary voters had selected.
Pence also stressed his passive resistance to Trump’s demand that he block the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory as a mob of Trump supporters seized the Capitol chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.” The former vice president noted that he, his wife Karen and his daughter Charlotte had rushed to safety in the Capitol. But when Tapper pressed him and asked whether he was still angry at Trump, he did not answer directly, saying that he met with Trump in the days after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. “My Christian faith tells me to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. And in the Christian faith, forgiveness is not optional,” Pence added.
Recall how Trump used a Bible as a prop after Black Lives Matter protesters were teargassed in 2020 to clear the way for the president. Or his decision not to “get into specifics” when asked in 2015 what his favorite Bible verse was after he said it was his favorite book. It is possible to imagine Pence will peel off some voters from the former president’s evangelical base. But many who embraced Trump as a heroic figure will not easily abandon him. Indeed, they will prefer the entertaining, fighting Trump, who reminds them of the fire-and-brimstone evangelists.
Overall, Pence, a politician who appears highly controlled and rehearsed, hardly seems the man who will derail Trump as he charges toward the 2024 Republican nomination. It’s clear the former vice president harbors a deep ambition to be president. Evidence of this can be seen in his fundraising efforts and travel to early nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire. His war chest and national network of supporters may, however, threaten Trump in a way that causes the former president to lash out with new levels of nastiness.
Other Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may be eyeing runs for the White House. Add potential candidates like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the field for the 2024 Republican nomination could be very crowded. This would, as it did in 2016, open the way for the loudest man in every room to win with a relatively small vote that none of the others can match.
With wide agreement within the party that Trump was responsible for the GOP’s disappointment in the 2018, 2020 and 2022 elections, smart party leaders must fear the effect his 2024 campaign will have. After all, the number of voters who abhor him and consider him a threat to democracy is unlikely to decline. At the same time, enthusiasm for Trump among the Republican voters appears to be waning.
Who is responsible for Trump’s continued political viability? Many share some blame. Among them would certainly be the man who was his sycophant from the 2016 election all the way up to January 6, 2021, when Pence notably defied his president. Pence now seems to be riding on Trump’s coattails as he gears up for a potential presidential run to try to defeat the very man he enabled.