01 pence town hall 1116 SCREENGRAB
Watch Pence's response when asked if he'll support Trump in 2024
03:30 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this essay are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

If a perfect Republican candidate was created in a lab, it would look a lot like former Vice President Mike Pence.

He is an earnest evangelical, a family man with Midwestern modesty, a social and fiscal conservative and national security hawk. He is a talking point automaton, an “aw shucks” right-wing policy wonk with an impeccable resume, bridging the George W. Bush era with the Tea Party and former President Donald Trump’s administration. And after being an unquestioning party loyalist, he proved himself to be a true constitutional conservative when it counted most.

For those Republicans who say that they backed Trump because of his policies, not the endless personal and legal chaos, Pence should be heaven sent for 2024. And yet, polling shows the former vice president scrambling for single digit support in the GOP field. Something else must be going on.

Against this backdrop, on his 64th birthday, Pence officially announced his candidacy Wednesday and joined CNN’s Dana Bash for a town hall in Iowa, where he tried to walk the line between continuity with the Trump administration while condemning his former running mate.

This is pretzel logic and worked out about as well as you might imagine for folks listening for consistency at home.

The most damning example was when Pence declared that we’ve got to have “equal treatment under the law.” Then, in the next breath, he stated that he hoped the Department of Justice
would not charge Trump if he was found to have broken the law by knowingly retaining classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. Pence argued he “would just hope that there would be a way for them to move forward without the dramatic … step of indicting.” This makes no sense.

He was righteously steadfast in his defense of upholding the rule of law and democracy when he certified the election on January 6, 2021, but still felt the need to say that he was concerned about voting irregularities in a half-dozen states, referencing changes that made it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic. There’s no need to offer comfort to election truthers.

Pence was most effective when he stopped trying to straddle the fence. His best line of the night came when he dissed Trump for calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “genius” last year after his invasion of Ukraine. “I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal,” Pence said in the closest he will ever come to a mic drop soundbite.

Likewise, Pence was most impressive when he was forthright about refusing to consider pardoning anyone convicted for the January 6 attack on the US Capitol — in contrast to Trump saying he’d “very, very seriously” consider full pardons for the rioters. “I have no interest or no intention of pardoning those that assaulted police officers or vandalized our Capitol,” Pence said. That’s actual law and order.

For the moment, at least, this remains very much Trump’s Republican Party and Pence learned a thing or two while nodding approvingly by his side. Whenever possible, he deflected direct questions about Trump and attacked President Joe Biden instead. Some were clean critiques, like when he said the “disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan has literally emboldened the enemies of freedom around the world.” Others were outdated talking points about record-high inflation and sky-high crime in cities, when inflation has been decreasing for 10 months and
murders seem to be declining so far this year — but there’s no reason to let facts get in the way of a good narrative.

Pence also skillfully reframed a question about Social Security solvency, saying that he was open to reforms for people under the age of 40 in order to avoid mandatory cuts in the program for seniors. This was a return to former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan’s style of fiscal responsibility, something for which there used to be a constituency inside the GOP.

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The fact that Pence is routinely derided as a RINO (“Republican in name only”) highlights the absurdity of these political slurs. Pence is, on paper, perhaps the most conservative candidate in the race. I was struck by his repetition of a favorite line: “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order.” Contrast that with the mid-20th century formulation popularized by President Lyndon Johnson: “I am a free man, an American, a United States Senator and a Democrat — in that order.” The elevation of religion and ideology in that litany is both a sign of the times and Pence’s political identity.

It is far too early for cynics to call this GOP primary season. Yes, the polls are daunting for the former vice president. But I’d wager that he would do very well in a secret ballot among Republican congressmen — and that may extend to Iowa’s evangelical voters who come home to one of their own rather than a walking advertisement for the seven deadly sins. If Pence can’t gain momentum, it will say more about the underlying appetites of the current Trump coalition than it will about his conservative credentials.