In late October, Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager and progressive political donor, put up $10 million for a nationwide ad campaign urging Congress to live up to its constitutional responsibility and begin the process of impeaching Donald Trump.
Steyer’s argument is compelling—and familiar:
[Trump] has brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice with the FBI, in direct violation of the Constitution has taken money from foreign governments, and threatened to shut down news organizations that reported the truth.
A Republican Congress once impeached a president for far less. Yet today, people in Congress and his own administration know that this president is a clear and present danger, who is mentally unstable and armed with nuclear weapons. And they do nothing.
Then, as October drew to an end, Robert Mueller handed down the first indictments in his investigation, including the George Papadopolous guilty plea, which provided the first glimpse of someone in the Trump campaign reaching out to Russian authorities. Then Trump campaign aide Carter Page announced he was in the loop with Papadopolous. Then came news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was aware of Page’s trip to Russia, which also means he (Sessions) probably (again) perjured himself before the Senate. Then Trump campaign policy director Sam Clovis is interviewed by Mueller’s team and testifies before the grand jury. Then, after the indictment of Trump’s first campaign chair, Paul Manafort, a federal judge considers whether he’s a flight risk, and schedules his trial for spring 2018. Then news from the Senate Judiciary Committee that Trump son-in-law (and White House adviser) Jared Kushner withheld emails regarding Russian contacts and WikiLeaks, which had released emails that Russian intelligence had stolen from the Clinton campaign. And then, and then, and then.…
So. President Mike Pence?
I have been predicting the Mike Pence presidency since 2010. Pence probably would have been a candidate in 2016—though one wonders how he would have fared against Donald Trump—had he not, as governor of Indiana, bungled a bathroom bill targeting the LGBT community: first backing a Christian-right bill as extreme as the law that helped oust Republican Pat McCrory as governor of North Carolina in 2016, then, after signing it, pleading with his Legislature to moderate it in response to the corporate backlash that meant the Republicans’ bigotry would have cost the state billions.
Until the first round of Mueller indictments, the prospect of Pence reaching the presidency without facing the electorate seemed unlikely. But now, if congressional Republicans are forced to move Trump out of the way, Pence allows them to do so without antagonizing the extreme right, without which there is no national Republican party.
Pence frequently describes himself as “a Christian, conservative, and Republican, in that order.” No other Republican of his stature engages the two groups that make up “the Republican base”—the extreme Christian right and the Tea Party faction, whose support made Donald Trump president.
Pence has been consistent in his devotion to the ideals of the evangelical right since before he was elected to the seat he held in Congress. He was flogging the Tea Party agenda before there was a Tea Party, initially in his two failed campaigns for the House in 1996 and 1998, then as a member of Congress and governor of Indiana.
To hear him speak to his base—as I have over the years at the Values Voters Summit, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference, and the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—in an earnest Middle-Western idiom that is as reassuring as it is compelling, is to understand that he’s their guy. Pence perfected his sincere, often mawkish, speaking style as an FM radio talk-show personality in Rushville, Indiana. He wasn’t actually doing Christian radio, but his faith defined his programming.
Pence’s “faith journey,” from devout Roman Catholic schoolboy to born-again evangelical Christian, has been widely reported. While he was an undergraduate at Hanover College in Indiana in the late 1980s, his fraternity “big brother” told him that genuine believers wear Christ in their hearts, not only on gold crosses hanging around their necks. As a Catholic, Pence had never known that sort of religious fervor.
“I began to meet young men and women who talked about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Pence said in a Christian Broadcasting Network interview (quoted in The New York Times, July 20, 2016). “That had not been a part of my experience.”
Pence met his wife, Karen Batten, a public school teacher, at a church event while he was attending law school at Indiana University. Two stories—the account of her purchasing a gold cross with “Yes” written on it, to keep on hand until Pence proposed to her, and the fact that he calls her his “prayer warrior” —have also been frequently reported.
“She’s been very much a part of his faith journey,” said Mark Bailey in an interview with an Indiana newspaper quoted in the Times. Bailey and Pence prayed together each morning in an office of the Indianapolis law firm where they worked in the 1980s.
Somewhere on that journey, Pence embraced some peculiar proscribed behaviors regarding the opposite sex. Guided by his faith, and God knows what doctrinal constraints regarding contact with women, Pence began observing the “Billy Graham Rule.” According to Jane Mayer’s October 23 profile in The New Yorker, and as reported by several other news outlets, Pence refuses to dine alone with any woman other than his wife. And he will not attend an event where alcohol is served in mixed company unless he is accompanied by his wife. Such behavior is not unknown among evangelicals; former Congressman Frank Wolf, for example, was one of several pious Christian members of the House who would insist their office doors remain open when they met with an unaccompanied woman.
Whether or not Pence refers to his wife in public (and private, it is assumed) as “Mother” has been a subject of dispute. His staff now denies it. But Rolling Stone cited several witnesses who confirmed the peculiar usage.
By the time Pence began his short-lived career in radio, his faith journey was near-complete. For five days a week, three hours a day, Pence was a Christian, conservative, and Republican, talking and listening to Indiana.
He actually had two radio shows (rare clips of the second program can be found on YouTube). After he lost his first race for Congress in 1988, he was approached by the wife of an owner of an FM station in Rushville, Indiana, with the promise that a radio program would “keep his name out there.” His debut as a talk-show host ended when Democrats objected to his use of the show to start his second campaign against Democratic Representative Phil Sharp. After he lost to Sharp by a wider margin than on his first attempt, Pence returned to radio again, this time with “The Mike Pence Show.”
His evangelical faith was a subtext of much of his commentary. Weighing in on the 1997 discharge of Air Force First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, for engaging in an adulterous affair with the husband of an enlisted subordinate, Pence turned to what he often refers to as “the Good Book.”
Of course, Flinn should have been dishonorably discharged, he said. But the first female B-52 pilot in the Air Force had betrayed a higher authority. “I for one believe that the Seventh Commandment, contained in the Ten Commandments, is still a big deal. It’s the most important promise you’ll ever make. And holding people accountable to those promises, and holding people accountable to respecting the promises that other people make, what could possibly be a bigger deal than that in this country?”
Following that preamble, Pence opened the line to a caller.
Pence: “Oh, you think the President is involved in this decision?”
Caller: “I’m positive he would be.”
Pence: “On how to handle it?”
Caller: “If not the President, the President’s wife.” [There it was. Adultery in higher places than the Air Force officer corps. Philandering Bill Clinton.]
Pence: “Ummmm. I don’t know, we haven’t heard a whisper out of the White House on this case. I mean, not a whisper. Not a whisper. And the President comments on everything.”
Where Rush Limbaugh would have snarled, Pence purred. That was his style.
Today, speaking to the Republican base, he is without equal: the best and most compelling demagogue on the American political right.
Pence, in fact, believed women had no place in the military, not even a fictitious woman in a fictitious army. Mulan, he said, in one gentle rant recapped in his newspaper column, was the heroine in a Disney film. On Fathers Day, Pence, “like so many other Hoosier dads,” had taken his children to see the movie—the story of a delicate young girl who poses as a man to take her father’s place in the Chinese army’s war against the Huns.
“I suspect that some mischievous liberal at Disney assumes that Mulan’s story will cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat,” Pence said. Bambi had been used as part of a liberal scheme to attack deer hunting. Was another generation of Disney screenwriters deviously promoting women soldiers?
“The only problem with this liberal hope is the reality which intrudes on the Disney ideal from the morning headlines.” The 1992 “Tailhook” scandal, which had involved “scores of high-ranking Navy fighter pilots who molested subordinate young women.” Tailhook, and a more current sex scandal at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, were proof that gender integration in the military had failed.
Even Mulan, in the end, ends up falling in love with her superior officer. “Moral of the story: women in military, bad idea.”
It’s 1990s vintage Pence, but his religious convictions are no less extreme today than they were 20 years ago.
Women in the military, Clinton hatred, liberals raising taxes, the erosion of patriotic values, even “fake news” in The Indianapolis Star’s undercounting the crowd at the Indianapolis 500 (the company that owned the race track also owned the radio station that employed him): Pence was earning his chops with the same tropes he has reprised in almost every speech he made in his ascent to the vice presidency. Today, speaking to the Republican base, he is without equal: the best and most compelling demagogue on the American political right.
When Republicans were in the minority in Congress, Ralph Nader often urged me to publish all the bills congressional Republicans filed—to inform readers what they would impose on the country were they ever in power. “They tell you what kind of country they would create,” Nader said. (They are in power now, but like the Christians who conquered what remained of the Cordoban Caliphate in the fourteenth century, but were unable to operate the elaborate irrigation systems the Moors had built in southern Spain, they’ve yet to master the machinery of governing.)
As a congressman, Pence was unable to move most bills he filed past referral to committee, but a sampling of the 108 pieces of legislation he offered up is revealing. Pence’s bills would have:
• Eliminated federal funding from hospitals or clinics that provide abortion services
• Codified the end of the Federal Communication Commission’s “fairness doctrine,” which once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that is honest, equitable, and balanced
• Restricted U.S. contributions to the International Monetary Fund’s bailout of European nations in financial crisis
• Reduced the capital gains tax
• “Deplored” attempts by the Afghan government to discourage Afghans from converting to other religions (i.e., from Islam to Christianity)
• “Deplored” the misuse of the International Court of Justice in rulings against the state of Israel
• Supported Israel’s construction of a security wall separating Israel from Palestinian-occupied Palestinian territories
• Imposed restrictions on U.S. financial contributions to the United Nations
• Defunded Planned Parenthood
• Prohibited the Department of Justice from using funds to enforce criminal penalties on parties and individuals violating campaign-finance laws
• Restricted U.S. funding of the Palestinian authority
In fairness, Pence did file a “shield bill,” protecting journalists and their sources, which was aimed at child pornographers, and legislation aimed at protecting legitimate holders of domain names.
Even if he never passed a bill, his legislative record reads like his party’s national platform minus the plank that would put the United States back on the gold standard. Nor when it came to Planned Parenthood was he merely a member of the Republican chorus; his was the first bill to call for reduced federal funding of that essential women’s health organization—and favorite Republican target.
As a member of the House, Pence was effective in other ways. Elected in 2000, he was named chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee in 2005, after leading the 25 fiscal conservatives who voted against Bush’s $400 billion Medicare prescription bill in 2003. He led the fight to cut $41.6 billion from Medicaid and other social programs in 2005, and opposed Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education reform bill.
He said his votes against both bills “got huge play at home.” “My district knows what I stand for, and God bless them, and I give God the glory, 67 percent of my district said, ‘Keep doing it.’ So look out,” he said at the time.
By the time he was elected governor in 2012, he was chair of the House Republican Conference, the number-three position in leadership in the majority party in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his four years in Indianapolis, he was consistently as extreme as he had been as a member of Congress. As governor, Pence promoted a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” that would have allowed any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion,” and deny services to individuals, in other words gays and lesbians, on religious grounds. (A week after he signed the bill into law, confronted by a corporate boycott of Indiana and the prospect of the NCAA moving its 2015 Final Four tournament to another state, Pence pleaded with the Legislature to revise it.)
He supported and signed into law legislation restricting women’s reproductive rights every year he served as governor. The bill he signed into law in 2016 included provisions that banned abortions based on evidence of disabilities, including Down syndrome and other fetal anomalies; imposed penalties on doctors; and required that abortion providers bury rather than cremate fetuses.
The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, described the law as the most restrictive ever enacted. Indiana PBS reported at the time that “several state lawmakers, including Republicans who have authored anti-abortion legislation in the past, argued vehemently against it. They said the measure, which includes a ban on abortions performed because of genetic abnormalities (including, for example, Down syndrome), demeans women and lacks compassion. One lawmaker said it signals a return to the time of backroom abortions. Doctors urged the governor to veto the bill, warning that patients could feel pressure to lie to their doctors.”
“I signed this legislation with a prayer that God would continue to bless these precious children, mothers, and families,” Pence said after signing the bill. A day before the law was to go into effect, it was blocked by a federal judge, who wrote: “How can it be described as anything but a prohibition on the right to get an abortion?”
He promoted and signed into law “the largest tax cut in the history of Indiana” (which was actually rather modest in a state that has one of the lowest income-tax rates in the nation). And he spiked a state application for an $80 million federal grant to start a statewide preschool program—then, as he did with the anti-LGBT law, walked back his decision.
These are unassailable presidential bona fides among establishment Republicans—and in the Republican Party of Donald Trump, and the Steve Bannon wing of the party. The hypocrisy of the pious evangelical who jumps at the opportunity to be the running mate of a presidential candidate who bragged that he grabbed women “by the pussy” and once jumped on a married woman “like a bitch,” makes sense only if one takes into account a longtime Pence friend’s observation that he has “been running for president since he was in junior high.”
Pence is an opportunist, Christian, conservative, and Republican, in that order. And he’s two impeachment votes and one heartbeat away from the office he’s been pursuing since he asked a friend in 1996, “Guess who’s running for Congress?”
Lou Dubose is The Washington Spectator‘s Senior Political Writer.