Mike Pence's job: Navigating most challenging vice presidency in US history

Pence’s experience in Congress and as governor of Indiana makes him an essential asset. But as a president-in-waiting, he also has to walk a fine line as he seeks not to overstep his bounds.

Alex Brandon/AP
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for US Ambassador to Japan William F. Hagerty IV in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House complex, Thursday, July 27, 2017.

One is brash and unpredictable, the other a polite, reliable conservative. One is a novice at governing, the other a seasoned legislator and governor. And despite – or perhaps because of – their stark differences, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have carved out a relationship that appears to work.

Mr. Trump has come to rely on Mr. Pence’s advice and guidance, say people familiar with the workings of the West Wing, who add that Pence is often at his side. He is in many ways the “anti-Trump,” a reassuring presence to conservatives who are wary of the president, or even hostile. And until now, Pence has managed to escape the palace intrigues that have dominated Trump’s first 200 days in office.

That’s why the weekend story in The New York Times reporting that Pence may be quietly preparing to run for president himself in 2020, should Trump not be on the ballot, was so explosive. It suggested a hint of disloyalty by a vice president who has been vocally supportive of Trump from the day he was named to the ticket. Top presidential advisers have vigorously pushed back on the story. Pence himself issued a statement denouncing the article as “disgraceful and offensive” and calling it “fake news.”

But beneath the latest West Wing kerfuffle lies a deeper reality: that Pence has embarked on perhaps the most challenging vice presidency in history.

“He’s facing a very complicated situation,” says Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of the book “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.”

The office of vice president gained real stature only 40 years ago. It was President Jimmy Carter’s VP, Walter Mondale, who established up front the role of a true governing partner, not just a successor. Every vice president since has operated on that model. But Pence is the first to play that role in a White House that is unusually light on governing experience. Pence has named George H.W. Bush as his model – which, perhaps not coincidentally, turns Trump into Ronald Reagan and Pence into a vice president who goes on to become president.

The art of 'followership'

Pence’s experience – 12 years in Congress and four years as governor of Indiana – makes him an essential asset. But as a president-in-waiting, Pence also has to walk a fine line as he seeks not to overstep his bounds.

And in that, Pence has had to display a type of leadership that some call “followership” – to both induce people to follow him and also be a good follower himself, in the context of a Trump presidency that is pursuing policies and tactics that at times differ from his own approach.

So far, Pence has earned high marks from Republican regulars.

“He was born to be vice president,” says Cam Savage, a Republican consultant from Indiana. “He’s a team player, he gives a great speech, he’s easy to get along with, he’s hard-working, he’ll never embarrass you.”

“You need someone to go halfway around world to make a good impression at a foreign leader’s funeral? Slam dunk,” Mr. Savage adds. “You need a guy to hit the campaign trail and stump for a week at a time? He’s your man. You need a guy to talk to a group of big-shot donors? Piece of cake. You need a guy to go on ‘Meet the Press’? He’s great on TV.”

The challenge comes when the issue of succession becomes significant. “It drives a wedge between the president and vice president, and their two teams,” says Professor Goldstein.

Thorny question of succession

Unlike the Clinton presidency, in which the Lewinsky scandal broke in the second term, Trump’s presidency has been tumultuous from the start – sparking early chatter about succession and jokes about “President Pence.”

For Pence, the role he plays for Trump is no laughing matter. And for a president adamant about his own primacy, any hint that Pence is thinking about anything other than Trump’s needs is anathema. Yet it’s clear that Pence has an eye on his political future. He recently replaced his chief of staff with a veteran political operative, Nick Ayers. And in May, he became the first sitting vice president to launch a leadership political action committee.

The new PAC, called Great America Committee, can be seen two ways: Its stated goal is to raise money to support Trump’s reelection and congressional candidates who support Trump’s agenda. But it also creates for Pence a separate power center that could further his own political career. The timing of its creation, a week after Trump fired the head of the FBI, has raised eyebrows.

“He claims he is doing it to help 2018 candidates,” says a Republican strategist with ties to the White House. “Normally you would raise [money] for the party, not your PAC. Notice he did it roughly one week after the Comey firing. This is about Pence's political future even if they don't outwardly say it.”

Pence has long had his eye on the presidency, and is seen as a prospect for 2024. But the turmoil of Trump’s early months in office has spawned what the Times called a GOP “shadow campaign” for 2020 – not just Pence, but also Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. Visits to early primary and caucus states by these politicos and others have fueled speculation.

For Pence, the layers of complication are many. If the Trump presidency crashes and burns, he will surely be tarnished. For the most part, Pence has managed to maintain enough separation from Trump that he hasn’t been consumed by West Wing controversies. During the early flap over Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn, Pence said he was “out of the loop” over Mr. Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador.

And so Pence has managed to have it both ways – to be Trump’s anchor but also absent at times.

The irony is, if Pence had run for president in 2016, Trump would certainly have eviscerated him, as he did the rest of the field. Instead, Trump plucked Pence from a gubernatorial reelection race that he was in danger of losing, and turned him into a presidential player.

“In a lot of ways, Trump and Pence are yin and yang – on matters of style and faith, and in how they operate,” says Barry Bennett, who was a senior adviser to the Trump campaign. “Pence loves details, Trump wants one-page memos.”

Mr. Bennett adds that “Pence’s leash is quite long,” and that he has earned Trump’s respect. “I think he trusts Mike Pence implicitly.”

That is evident, for example, on Washington’s posture toward Russia. Last week, while Trump was bashing Congress for imposing new sanctions on Russia, Pence praised the bill as sending an important message during a trip to three Eastern European countries.

Trump's man on the Hill

His primary task has been to work Capitol Hill, where he rose to the House Republican leadership while in Congress. Marc Short, Trump’s legislative affairs director, worked for Pence when he chaired the House Republican Conference.

Pence is a regular on the Hill, and not just to break ties in the Senate – the veep’s only real constitutional power. Like the last Republican vice president, Dick Cheney, Pence often attends his party’s Tuesday Senate lunches.

"He’s appreciated here for his understanding of how the system works and what's possible,” says Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, who has known Pence for two decades.

But it may be the little things that capture the essence of Pence. In late July, as he was about to take off for his trip to Eastern Europe, a press pool report noted that he and his wife, Karen, held hands as they walked toward Air Force Two.

Once on board, the Pences make a surprise trip to the back of the plane, bearing cupcakes and brownies with red, white, and blue sprinkles, and birthday wishes for a reporter. Pence shook hands with every member of the press, welcoming them to his official plane and inquiring if everyone was comfortable.

“It should be a good trip, everybody,” Pence said.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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