Could vice-president Mike Pence be the most powerful man in America?

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

Let’s take stock. Donald Trump, until last week, had never done a government job or held an elected office. He ran for president as a kind of anti-politician, ignoring the conventional wisdom about how to win. Amazingly, he won. It was, in its way, an impressive feat, overturning much conventional wisdom. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that, as president, he’s got to be political and must surround himself with politicians. Mike Pence, his vice-president, may turn out to be the most important of the lot.

The two men did not previously know one another, but have become friends over the past five months, and recognise each other’s merits. They are a study in opposites. Trump is larger-than-life, tempestuous, never boring; Pence is mild, methodical, steady and a trifle dull. Pence is a ‘Tea Party’ critic of politics-as-usual, but by comparison with the new chief he looks like an insider. Even if Trump’s team dismantle parts of the immense federal government, as they intend, they’ve still got to know how to manoeuvre in the Washington labyrinth. Pence knows his way around.

In last week’s jostling for power, he clearly came out ahead of Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey. Trump almost selected Christie as his running mate back in July, before settling for Pence. He gave Christie the consolation prize of organising the transition, at a time when hardly anyone thought there would be a transition. Now that the impossible has happened, Trump has taken the suddenly significant job out of Christie’s hands and given it to Pence.

Trump may well believe, along with nearly everyone, that Christie was to blame for ‘Bridgegate’, the deliberate creation of paralysing traffic jams on one of the major bridges from New Jersey to New York to punish a Democratic town mayor who refused to endorse Christie for governor in 2013. Two of Christie’s aides took responsibility, were recently convicted and may go to jail.

Pence, by contrast, has an untarnished personal record and is now in a position to shape the Trump administration by pushing his preferred candidates into key positions. He’s also low-key, patient, and a reconciler. For example, Trump has had a succession of rows with Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives. Each insulted the other during the campaign. Pence gets on well with both men, is already their go-between, and might become the peacemaker. He was a member of the House of Representatives for 12 years up to 2012, then governor of his home state, Indiana, for another four. He has worked with most of the leading Republicans, and has a reputation among them for hard work and ideological purity.

At a time when rumours abound that Trump is planning a hands-off presidency — it’s said he will spend a good amount of time in New York — an intriguing question presents itself: how much else will be devolved to Pence? Might his duties include running the American government?

Pence was born in 1959 in the Indiana town of Columbus, population 45,000, graduated from a small religious college, attended law school and made his name as a conservative radio commentator, once describing himself as ‘Rush Limbaugh on decaf’. Catholic by birth, with Irish ancestors, he became a born-again Christian in his teens, claiming that evangelical Protestantism gave him, for the first time, the chance to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. He has promised never to drink alcohol unless his wife was in the room, and apparently has stuck to the pledge. He finds the theory of evolution unconvincing and doubts the human role in global warming. He favours balanced budgets and a strong defence posture while opposing abortion, gay rights and sex education. He supported an Indiana law that would have let business owners deny service to gay people, but was forced to back away from it under intense local and national pressure.

His office, the vice-presidency, has been a mixed bag historically. Often a place where presidents have mothballed prominent rivals, it remains nevertheless — as the cliché goes — just a heartbeat from the presidency. Eight presidents have died in office, pushing eight vice-presidents into the Oval Office. Six other former veeps have advanced to the top job, sometimes in subsequent elections but once (Gerald Ford, 1974) when a sitting president had to resign. Even if the president survives but is weak or inexperienced, the right vice-president can play an influential role.

The US constitution says nothing about the work the vice-president should do, other than to break deadlocked votes in the Senate and to preside over the quadrennial work of the electoral college. In the early days of the republic, the president was the man with the most votes, and the vice-president the man with the second most. George Washington’s vice-president, John Adams, found he had nothing to do, and complained in a letter to his wife that he held ‘the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived’.

When Adams finally became president in the election of 1796, however, he was saddled with Thomas Jefferson, that year’s runner-up, even though they belonged to opposite parties and clashed over all the major issues. The Twelfth Amendment to the constitution (1804) changed the rules but further diminished the prestige of the post.

Things have looked up for vice-presidents since then. Richard Nixon sat in on President Eisenhower’s cabinet meetings and acted as his liaison with Congress. When Eisenhower was taken ill on three separate occasions Nixon ran the cabinet in his absence. Walter Mondale supervised the Jimmy Carter transition team in 1976-77 and played a major role in the Camp David negotiations that culminated in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of March 1979. Dick Cheney was a central figure in the George W. Bush administration, and Pence may well rival him for influence and power. Cheney, too, was in charge of the transition.

The unspoken, but doubtless not un-thought, reality for Pence is that Trump has two immense weaknesses. First is his lack of experience. It’s one thing to claim that only a new broom can sweep clean but it’s another to show up, green and credulous, in a city full of tough janitors. The new president is going to need a lot of help. Second, Trump is an old man, already 70, and likely to decline in energy as the years pass. It may not be long before Pence, 13 years his junior, comes to seem like the dynamic half of Washington’s strange new duo.


Patrick Allitt is a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta.

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