Mike Pence Packs His Baggage
He sold himself as a second Mitch Daniels, but his one term as governor was marred by a mix of political calculation and ideological extremes. Even as Pence leaves Indiana to become vice president, he departs with the last legacy he ever would have chosen.
Live from New York, it was Saturday Night. On October 8, just a few weeks before the election, Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey returned to their NBC roots and indulged in some political humor. In inconsistent accents and wigs Donald Trump wouldn’t touch, Fallon and Fey played a couple of undecided voters surveying their options. There was Trump (too sexist). Then there was Hillary Clinton (too dishonest).
But Fey kept going, to the vice-presidential nominees. “You know who I think is secretly the biggest jackass?” she said. “Mike Pence.”
“You don’t like Pence?” Fallon replied. “He seems like the normal one.”
Fey was having none of it. “You know he backed that law in Indiana saying, like, if you’re real Jesus-y you can refuse to sell pizza to gay people?”
The exchange was funny. (“First of all, Indiana, no one wants your garbage pizza.”) But it was also sobering once you realized it was one of 2016’s few prominent looks at Mike Pence’s record. When Trump first picked Pence as his VP, journalists dutifully listed the highlights and lowlights on his gubernatorial resume, including his signing of Indiana’s infamous Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But during Pence’s biggest campaign moments—his convention speech, his vice-presidential debate, and his countless hits on cable TV—he avoided direct scrutiny. Instead, he spent most of last fall trapped in a difficult and debasing routine: Bound on stage at a rally, proclaim Trump a “good man,” then step off and face reporters who wanted to know why The Donald had claimed our elections were rigged or suggested gun owners could do something about a Clinton victory.
Pence excelled in this role, though it always felt jarring to see him—“a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order”—defending someone who was arguably none of the above. With the election now over, Pence leaves Indiana behind. But while the rest of the country considers his future, as vice president and perhaps as president after that, Hoosiers reflect on his past. At some point, Pence’s record as governor will make a real impact on his political fortunes. More important, it has already made a real impact on our state, though not in the way you might think.
Mike Pence was Indiana’s 50th governor, and the 49 who came before have been a mix—a few excellent, a few terrible, and then a big mushy middle of good-enough. We’ve been blessed with great governors like Oliver Morton and Paul McNutt, men made great in part by their circumstances—the Civil War for Morton and the Great Depression for McNutt. We’ve been cursed with awful ones like Warren T. McCray, who fought the Ku Klux Klan but finished his term in prison, and Edward Jackson, who cozied up with the Klan and ended his career in disgrace.
More than anything, though, we’ve been granted solid, middling executives. Hoosiers have never expected much from their government. In fact, we’ve never wanted much from it, preferring instead to nurture our independence and skepticism. We’ve gone for practical governors, men who grew up in Hoosier politics, who rose up through our courts or local government, who understood firsthand Indiana’s institutions and ethos. These men rarely had national ambitions; they rarely pushed ambitious ideas. And in this sense, they served as ideal representatives of their state. As James Madison, an emeritus history professor at IU, wrote in his book The Indiana Way, “The people of Indiana have tended to navigate in the middle of the American mainstream, drifting if anywhere a little closer to the more secure edge of the river.”
Of course, Pence will always be compared to his predecessor, Mitch Daniels. When Daniels first won, in 2004, he ended 16 years of Democratic executives. He came in with an enormous conservative wish list, and during his two terms he checked off most of it—instituting school vouchers and property-tax caps, curtailing collective-bargaining rights for many workers, and leasing the Indiana Toll Road, among other big ideas. Daniels fetishized details, to the point that he would personally recruit candidates to run against legislators he disliked. But he could also be inspiring. In his second inaugural, he defiantly quoted Madison’s book. “A new mentality has taken root, a new boldness,” Daniels said. “No more will historians write that we prefer to keep to ‘the more secure edge of the river.’”
Sometimes, it seemed like the only “end” he had in mind was his national ambition.
Daniels was always going to be a tough act to follow, and Pence knew that. He centered his campaign on a wonky Roadmap for Indiana, a document best described as “Daniels lite.” Pence also knew that he needed to show a new style of leadership. Unlike most Indiana governors, he lacked a background in state or local government; his career had taken off first as a talk-radio host, then as a conservative crusader in Congress. But being governor required different skills. When Indianapolis Monthly interviewed him the day after he won, Pence said that “a leader casts a vision. I believe an executive should begin with the end in mind.”
Many now feel Pence failed to live up to his own job description. As a leader, he was calculating and cautious; sometimes, it seemed like the only “end” he had in mind was his national ambition. “He was not a big thinker in the way that Daniels or even Frank O’Bannon was,” says Raymond Scheele, a political-science professor emeritus at Ball State University. Those governors circulated detailed agendas, peppered with their favored bills. But Pence had a bizarre habit of refusing to share his full agenda. At the start of each legislative session, reporters would ask if he was supporting certain bills and get no answer. Then, as the session was grinding along, something popular would emerge and Pence would swoop in to take credit. At the session’s close, the governor’s office would send out a list of victories—a list that often included bills reporters had never heard him mention. In the few instances where he did risk big ideas, notably two tax cuts, Pence saw legislators dilute or reject his proposals.
There’s no better example of a Pence failure—and of his failed promise as governor—than the issue of pre-kindergarten. Indiana has long trailed other states in early education. (Recall our skepticism and independence.) Early education was a rare issue Daniels didn’t try to reform. But Pence made expanding it a key goal. His Roadmap highlighted the importance of pre-K, and in the 2014 session, Pence championed a $10 million bill that would create a pilot program for 1,000 at-risk kids. In fact, in a bold and unusual move, Pence went before the Senate Education Committee and personally testified on behalf of that bill. Standing behind a wooden podium, he spoke up for kids in tough circumstances, kids who started kindergarten behind and never caught up. “As a parent and as your governor,” Pence told the committee, “I find that not only unacceptable, but heartbreaking.”
Pence’s passion that day was reminiscent of his successful stint in Congress. The Senate Committee, worried about the bill’s price tag, still scuttled it. But Pence kept pushing behind the scenes until legislators found a way to fund the pilot program. It’s not too much to say that if it weren’t for Pence’s conviction, the program would not exist today—and that 1,000 children would not currently be enjoying an early start to their education.
But a pilot program is, by definition, a start. The obvious way to expand pre-K was through federal funds, and in 2014, Indiana seemed primed to receive $80 million in grants from the Obama administration. It required a complex application and a bipartisan team, including Pence staffers in the Family and Social Services Administration and on the Early Learning Advisory Committee. That team worked on it for months, but in October—on the day the application was due—a Pence appointee sent out an email to a colleague that was obtained by The Indianapolis Star. The governor, the appointee wrote, “has decided not to submit the federal pre-K grant application.”
The news stunned educators, politicians, and parents. Why would Pence torpedo an issue he had advocated for only months before? Why would he undercut the chance to put thousands of extra kids in pre-K? And why did he do all of this on the day the application was due? At first, a spokesperson said only that Pence was fearful of federal “strings.” But when he finally talked about his decision, a few days later, Pence couldn’t name a single string. The governor admitted that he had learned of the application—an application his own staffers had spent months on—mere days before it was due. The ineptness was striking. But the self-interest was even more so. Pence seemed less worried about Indiana’s kids than about the optics of accepting millions in federal cash. After all, a few days after he killed the pre-K application, the governor headed out on a high-profile trip to New Hampshire, a state famous for its early presidential primary.
While Pence ultimately decided against running for president, he earned a role in the 2016 chaos when the primaries reached Indiana. After some waffling, he tepidly endorsed Ted Cruz. “I’m not against anybody,” Pence said, “but I will be voting for Ted Cruz.” As if that wasn’t weak enough, Pence hedged further: “I particularly want to commend Donald Trump, who I think has given voice to the frustration of millions of working Americans.” It was another instance of the governor trying to have it both ways, and everyone knew it. “I said, ‘Who did he endorse?’” Trump would later tell a chuckling crowd. “It was the single greatest non-endorsement I’ve ever had.”
Pence became a clue on Jeopardy!; at one point, he was Googled more frequently than Kim Kardashian.
Pence ended up on Trump’s ticket, though at first Trump seemed as ambivalent toward him as Pence had seemed toward Cruz. Either way, Pence’s role as potential VP seemed strange for two reasons. First, it was odd to see the Hoosier governor, whom even local Democrats consider decent and kind, celebrating Trump. “Is adultery no longer a big deal in Indiana and in America?” Pence had once asked on his radio show. “Holding people accountable to those promises,” he continued, “to me, what could possibly be a bigger deal?” Now the man who had said that was in business with Donald Trump.
The second oddity was seeing Pence become more agile and assertive than he had ever been as governor. Here was a politician who had been mired in a difficult reelection bid, recycling some of his same old lines. (In his convention speech, he described growing up “with a cornfield in the backyard.”) And yet now, on a national stage, he thrived. Pence became a clue on Jeopardy!; at one point, he was Googled more frequently than Kim Kardashian. He stumped at rallies, submitted to voter selfies, and noshed on local treats. When he first ran for Congress, back in 1988, Pence canvassed his district on a bike; now he was criss-crossing America on one of Trump’s planes.
On certain issues, Pence delicately distanced himself from Trump. Yet he was always ready to defend his running mate, most notably during the vice-presidential debate. That performance was seen as a triumph for Pence, at least until reporters began fact-checking his actual defenses. But even that couldn’t slow Pence’s momentum. In the week after the debate, the crowds at his rallies got bigger. Pundits were praising him; Tina Fey was ready to mock him. There was even a poll showing Pence as Republicans’ top choice for 2020, should Hillary Clinton win.
That same week, Pence parked his plane and embarked on a short swing-state bus tour. Friday, October 7, began as a normal day. Pence’s bus, a second media bus, and the Secret Service’s SUVs all descended on a deli in Amherst, Ohio, where Pence and his daughter Charlotte chatted with patrons and sampled the owner’s specialty, chicken paprikash. (“It was an honor,” the owner said. “I think he’s a very good man.”) From there, the caravan headed to Tony Packo’s, a Toledo hangout famous for its chili dogs. In fact, the restaurant boasted a wall of faux hot-dog buns autographed by various celebrities, including Clinton and Trump.
Once he entered the dark, wood-paneled restaurant, Pence ordered more food. It was the cashier’s birthday, and Pence took time to sign a card (and draw a doodle). After that, he and Charlotte settled on one side of the restaurant. On the other, a handful of reporters positioned themselves by the wall of buns. Pence’s staff had promised they could film the candidate as he exited and stopped to admire the Trump bun.
While the media waited, they ordered a late lunch for themselves. As they ate, they checked their smartphones and social media—until one of them spotted a breaking story from the Washington Post. The newspaper had uncovered an explosive video in which Trump talked about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it thanks to his fame. The reporters quickly realized that this was no normal Trump controversy. They huddled together and decided to ask Pence about the tape. But one of Pence’s aides noticed the commotion, and after conferring with the campaign, he told the reporters that plans had suddenly, mysteriously changed—Pence was not going to be filmed, and the reporters needed to return to their bus right away.
History would have to do without the footage of Pence and the signed bun. And yet, far more seriously, Pence’s campaign had blocked the media from pursuing an important story. That Friday, it felt like every Republican in America was denouncing Trump’s comments. (“I am sickened by what I heard today,” Paul Ryan said.) But Pence continued to duck the press and the issue. The tour’s next stop was a rally at a high school gym, and Pence gave his standard stump speech, praising Trump’s vision and character. Afterward, the reporters tried shouting questions. “Governor,” yelled one, “what’s your reaction to the Trump tape?”
“Governor, how can you ignore this?” yelled another. “Governor, how can you ignore this question?”
Although the journalists were standing only a few feet away, Pence pretended not to hear. Instead, he kept on smiling, shaking hands, and reaching out to autograph the occasional hat that read “Make America Great Again.”
Mike Pence ignored that tape for the rest of Friday night. He ignored it on Saturday morning, too. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, he tweeted out a cautious statement. “I do not condone his remarks,” it read, “and cannot defend them.”
There’s plenty to dislike about our accelerated news cycle and our obsession with taking umbrage. Still, it’s difficult to view Pence’s initial silence as anything other than a disgrace. He was traveling with his 23-year-old daughter when he first heard Trump’s comments about women. Instead of reacting quickly and forcefully—instead of reacting morally—Pence froze, seemingly paralyzed by his own ambitions. It resembled his Cruz endorsement and his pre-K betrayal and the botched rollout of his “JustIN” state-run news service—yet another instance of Mike Pence caring more about political ramifications than about doing the right thing.
Pence made the right bet, if not the honorable one. Thanks to his Trump alliance, he is now Indiana’s most prominent national figure since Dan Quayle. It’s not clear how much power The Donald will give Pence, though the new VP clearly sees himself as a D.C. vet who can help drive the agenda. (“Vice President Cheney had experience in Congress, as I do,” Pence said last September, “and he was very active in working with members of the House and the Senate.”) Even if Trump returns to his earlier Pence ambivalence, his VP is only a heartbeat away from the White House—and in prime position to launch his own presidential bid for 2024. Don’t let the white hair fool you. Pence only recently turned 57.
Whenever he strikes out on his own, Pence’s gubernatorial record will finally receive some national scrutiny. That scrutiny should start with his tendency to be too calculating. It should continue through a second tendency: the devout social conservatism that led him to sign an abortion bill so extreme a federal judge blocked it. That extremity also led Pence to sign Indiana’s “religious freedom” law. It’s easy to forget now, after the downtown protests and the Indiana-bashing online, but in the beginning, Pence didn’t really champion RFRA. He never mentioned the bill in his 2015 State of the State speech, calling instead for “an education session.” As the bill sailed through the House and Senate, however, Pence saw an opportunity to take credit. His office could stage a private signing ceremony, a photo op to motivate politically powerful social conservatives, whether in Indiana or in Iowa and beyond.
Every Hoosier knows the rest: the national backlash, Pence’s calamitous ABC appearance, the unsatisfactory “fix.” RFRA, in short, fused Pence’s ambition and religious zeal into one devastating outcome, not least for the social conservatism he champions. We’re only beginning to see its impact on Indiana politics. Each year, a national survey comes out called the American Values Atlas. According to 2014’s Atlas, Hoosiers were split on same-sex marriage; 47 percent favored it, while 45 percent opposed. In 2015, though, that number shifted dramatically. While the Atlas’s national numbers barely moved, in Indiana 52 percent of Hoosiers now said they were in favor of same-sex marriage. Only 38 percent said they weren’t.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The Atlas started collecting its 2015 data a few weeks after the RFRA controversy, when we were still reeling from all the negative press. Pence’s push backfired, it seems, costing him in the battle of ideas. And that may be his true legacy in the Hoosier State. “I can’t speak as a historian,” James Madison says. “It’s too soon. But I can’t think of another Indiana governor who was as ideologically focused, who genuinely believed his way ought to be the Indiana way.” Yet Indiana is rejecting his way, forcefully. On that one issue, at least, and entirely by accident, Mike Pence pulled Hoosiers away from the “secure edge of the river” and set them drifting downstream, toward the future.