Does 'Bridge-builder-in-Chief' Pence have a role in Trump's White House?

After rallying reluctant Republicans to support Donald Trump during the campaign, what's next for Mike Pence? Though he brings valuable insider knowledge, his social conservatism may hamper negotiations with Congress.

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Then-Republican vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (second from r.), accompanied by (from l.) Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R) Texas, reacts to supporters before speaking at a campaign rally in Prole, Iowa in November.

After joining the ticket in July, Mike Pence played a critical role in uniting congressional Republicans behind their presidential nominee.

During the campaign, he regularly appeared alongside moderate Republican legislators and governors, positioning himself as a “bridge” to the Washington establishment Donald Trump publicly scorned. He managed to persuade vocal critics, like Texas senator and Republican primary presidential candidate Ted Cruz, to support Republican presidential nominee Trump. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire and Rob Portman (R) of Ohio publicly announced their plans to vote for the vice-presidential nominee as president.

In fact, some credit Vice President-elect Pence with getting the Republican presidential ticket across the finish line on Tuesday – and taking the rest of the GOP with it. Now that the election is over, what’s next for Pence? The vice president-elect, with his years of experience on Capitol Hill, could be an important adviser for Trump, but Pence’s social conservatism makes it harder for him to be a bridge-builder there, some analysts have suggested.

“Trump has a great deal of momentum [following the campaign] but I think he’s going to need someone who understands ... how the rules work in Congress,” Patrick Sellers, a professor of political science at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. However, “going forward, in terms of congressional work ... I think Pence is going to have limited utility for Trump,” he says.

Presidents from outside the political establishment have historically turned to their vice presidential picks as key advisers on dealing with Congress. Jimmy Carter depended on Walter Mondale for insights about congressional Democrats, while Ronald Reagan garnered information from George H.W. Bush, who had served in Congress as well as playing other roles in Washington.

Trump may be the purest “outsider” of them all. Unlike every preceding president, he has never held government office nor served in the military, making the insight of his advisers particularly important.

“Pence does understand how Congress works, and he’s going to be able to play that kind of advisory role,” explains Professor Sellers. In fact, Pence once served as Republican Conference Chairman, the party’s third-highest leadership position. 

However, he may be more limited when it comes to negotiating on policy issues.

“Outside of Biden, I cannot think of a vice president who played a consequential role — or much of a role at all — in working with Congress, let alone a major role in legislating,” writes John Johannes, a professor of political science at Villanova University, in an email to the Monitor. 

That move, he notes, was a calculated choice by President Obama, who knew he didn’t have the popularity on the Hill that Vice President Joe Biden enjoys. Whether Pence has the opportunity to play such a role may come down to President-elect Trump, he suggests, a view echoed by Northeastern University professor of political science William Crotty.

“Mike Pence's role in unifying the party, appealing to its fundamentalist/evangelical wing, working on legislation, will be exactly what Donald Trump decides it will be. No more,” writes Professor Crotty in an email to the Monitor.

But Professor Johannes suggests that Trump and Pence cannot expect to replicate Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden’s behavior, even if they might like to.

“Pence doesn’t enjoy Biden’s advantages. He wasn’t nearly as much of a presence [during his time in Congress] as was Biden,” he explains.

Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College who wrote a history of the Republican Party, "To Make Men Free," says Trump’s policies have created a fundamental disconnect with Congress.

“Donald Trump wants to drain the swamp. Well, Mitch McConnell is the swamp,” she notes in a phone interview with the Monitor. And Trump, not Pence, would be the person to reach out to congressional Republicans, she suggests.

That may also be true across the aisle. According to Johannes, Democratic leadership is too socially liberal to make common cause with Pence, whereas Trump – a one-time Democrat – is pursuing certain policies, such as infrastructure improvements, that may be more appealing. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, a Democratic primary presidential candidate, has already said that he will work with Trump on issues that improve the lives of ordinary people.

That doesn’t mean Pence is political dead weight, however. Pence may encourage social conservatives to stick with Trump when they consider his policies too liberal. And his close personal friendship with House Speaker Paul Ryan may be significant in promoting compromise within certain segments of the divided Republican Party.

Pence may also have long-term value to the Trump administration. Sellers suggests that the vice president-elect, while less useful in lobbying on policy issues, may be “a more effective advocate” if Trump seeks re-election in 2020.

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