If any political pundit has learned anything over the last year—which is doubtful—that lesson is never to write off Donald Trump, who has time and again shown a Road Runner-like resilience that has both surprised and just plain ticked off his critics. So the “I” word that is passing like a brisk wind in private conversations all over D.C. will not be mentioned herein.
But it does cause one to think. Suppose that for whatever reason Trump should cede the presidency to his vice president—say the president makes America great again ahead of schedule or alternatively decides he’s sick of the “witch hunts”—one might ask what kind of world and what unique challenges a President Mike Pence would face. The answer is, quite simply, a multitude. Indeed, with the possible exception of Gerald Ford, the able and experienced Pence would face the most difficult political and national security headwinds of any unelected commander-in-chief in America’s history. Of the nine men who have assumed the office unexpectedly, none has faced such a vicious political, media and cultural environment—an environment where even staunch Democrats like Dianne Feinstein are booed by supporters for not endorsing socialism and propelled by a frantic social media that turns every moment of the Trump presidency into “The Wire” meets “Game of Thrones.” In the face of these challenges, a President Pence would have to make a series of quick decisions that would set the tone for his administration, determine the prospects for his policy agenda and, not incidentally, decided his political future. Among them:
Selecting a vice president: The most crucial early decision Pence would face is in selecting his second in command, an unelected vice president who would require confirmation by Congress. In earlier administrations, under similar circumstances, presidents took different tacks. Some, like Lyndon Johnson, who had a reputation as a conservative southern Democrat, opted for balance, with liberal Midwesterner Hubert Humphrey. Others, like Ford, went for an established national name who would provide instant gravitas to the administration. In his view, that man was New York governor and three-time presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller. In most cases, including Johnson’s, presidents did not fill a vacancy in the vice presidency until they ran for the White House again. One presumes that a President Pence would want to have someone in place a lot sooner than that, which leaves him a number of tantalizing possibilities.
He could pick someone more moderate, like Maine’s Senator Susan Collins, to provide political and gender balance. He could go for the wise-man thing with an experienced national figure, like Mitt Romney. He could look for racial and geographic diversity with someone like South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. Or he could pick someone who’d recently been confirmed by the Senate and provides foreign policy experience, such as Ambassador Nikki Haley. A woman (check) from the South (check) with a reputation for pragmatism (check), Haley, in fact, seems an obvious choice. But any of these candidates would face the perils of going through congressional hearings where all aspects of their private lives and any ethical lapses would be laid bare.
Dealing with the Trump factor: Pence would also have to decide what his stance would be toward former President Trump, whom Pence loyally supported through a multitude of crises. Does he pay great tribute to the Trump record, and claim a role in it? Does he denounce it? Or does he, in the most likely scenario, chart a path between those two extremes? In part, this decision depends on the manner of Trump’s departure, though it is safe to assume that Trump is unlikely ever to win widespread support from half of the nation even if he developed a cure for cancer, saved a littler of puppies from a burning house and revealed he’d been pulling a long con of Vladimir Putin that leads to Putin’s resignation in disgrace.
Pence would have to hold together a political party that did not win a majority of the popular vote and that is split between Trump haters, Trump defenders and the Trump-curious. At the same time, he’ll be faced with a number of Republican officeholders who would seriously contemplate a challenge to Pence in the next GOP primaries. Key an eye out, as most reporters will, for senators or governors holding fundraisers or booking events in places like Dubuque or Manchester.
Readjusting the Cabinet and the Trump agenda: A related question would involve the Trump administration itself, which is filled with competent and capable Cabinet officials and agency heads of various quality. Would the new president decide it was time for a group of fresh faces, including high-level officials who might not have wanted to serve under Trump—or would he keep the Trump team intact for the most part? When Lyndon Johnson assumed the office of his murdered predecessor, John F. Kennedy, the answer was obvious: The oft-used phrase at his 1964 nominating convention was “Let us continue.” Conversely, when George H.W. Bush assumed the White House after the popular if overshadowing Ronald Reagan, he struck a note of independence, calling for “a kinder, gentler nation.”
Would a Pence administration still want to build a wall as a top agenda item? Probably not. Would it support Trump-sized tax cuts? Probably so. Would it advance a major infrastructure bill that is both popular and expensive? Who knows? Should he assume Trump’s office, Pence would certainly keep in mind that he was elected by voters who backed Trump’s priorities, even those that proved quite controversial.
Addressing the Russia question: Whatever the reason Trump left office, questions about Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election process would hardly disappear. This has become a favored talking point of the Democratic Party, still embittered over its surprise defeat in 2016. Would President Pence support the special counsel investigating these issues or would he pardon major players, like Ford did, to let the country move beyond them? Whom would he choose to lead the FBI or the Justice Department? If he resisted demands for an independent investigation, would his opponents accuse him of aiding a cover-up? Indeed, is there any chance that he was present at a meeting or meetings that might draw congressional or law-enforcement scrutiny? And how does President Pence deal with President Putin—as an enemy, a competitor, a friend?
Soothing a poisoned atmosphere: As veteran White House correspondent Brit Hume recently said on Fox News, “We are in the most poisonous atmosphere toward a president in my life time.” That is not going to dissipate, should a Trump administration evolve into a Pence one. The Washington press corps will be difficult to divert from its aggressive, occasionally extreme posture toward the Republican administration. Democrats in Congress, spurred on by the demands of their base, will hardly welcome opportunities to work with any president associated with Trump. Trump partisans across the country will continue to be embittered toward a GOP establishment that they believed never truly support their guy, even after he won an improbable election victory. When Ford took office after Watergate, he declared, “Our long national nightmare is over.” But it really wasn’t. It took many years for the scars from vicious political battles to heal; some never did. No matter how sincere or how skilled, it would be impossible task for any leader to bring the nation together in any enduring fashion after the bitterness of the last year. Considerable thought would have to expended, therefore, to at least make overtures in the right direction.
Deciding his own future: One consideration a President Pence might have to make quickly is a decision about his own future. Were he to announce he wouldn’t seek election in his own right, he might send a message that the nation’s business comes before his own. On the other hand, he would also be declaring himself a “lame duck” at the outset, which would make it harder to wield his power and influence to get things done. And depending on the hour of his ascension to the presidency—should that day ever come—he might have to go to work immediately to run for the White House, build a coalition and attract donors and supporters if he hopes to fend off a sizable number of rivals.
Of course, the prospect of a Pence presidency is today mostly a fever dream of those who have plotted to impeach Trump almost from the time he took office. But this political cycle moves so quickly and the news bombshells break so fast—what’s next? An alien invasion?—that it might be something the American people, and the Pence team, have to contemplate sooner than they think.