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The Pence Gambit

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By Henry Fuseli – The Yorck Project.

Some thoughts on Mike Pence; note from the start that this is far from a “Mike Pence and the GOP must save us from Donald Trump” kind of post…

There are currently 290 serving Republicans in the US Congress, and probably 270 would prefer President Pence to President Trump. This is not to overstate GOP opposition to Trump, or to suggest that Republican legislators will serve as a meaningful impediment to his agenda, or to imply that they won’t be happy to use the Trump presidency to accomplish their policy ends. It simply means that we are in the genuinely unusual position of having a majority Congress in which the strong majority of members would prefer the Vice President over the President.

Obviously, this makes impeachment more likely, which is different than saying it makes impeachment likely.

Of all the avenues by which we can imagine Trump getting impeached, I think that the Russia investigations hold the greatest danger. There may yet be some very interesting stuff; notwithstanding the new admiration for Putin in the rank and file, Russian electoral interference remains generally unpopular; Trump’s position on Russia is not widely held within the GOP legislative cohort.

Depending on your perspective, Mike Pence either took one for the team when he agreed to serve as Trump’s running mate, or made a high-odds gamble on success of the campaign. Thus, he’s essentially playing with house money. In the first weeks of the administration, Mike Pence has taken strong, visible steps to distance himself from the Russia Problem. He has repeatedly made speeches about Russia that hew much closer to the traditional GOP line on Moscow than to Trump’s accommodationist approach. He was apparently critical to the execution of Mike Flynn, and in the best possible way; he demonstrated that he had been cut out of the distribution circle and decision-making process regarding Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador.

Right now, Pence is a hefty insurance policy on a mobbed-up, fire-prone restaurant. The GOP appreciates the dangers associated with burning the restaurant down, and will avoid doing so unless pressed. But the insurance policy is very nice indeed, and if push comes to shove, nobody will have to shove all that hard to get a sufficient number of GOP legislators to think about impeachment. The content of the shove would involve collapsing Presidential approval ratings, poor performance in special elections, and anything particular explosive coming out of the various Russia investigations. Because of the role that Congress plays in the investigative process, the former two make the latter more likely.

Impeaching Trump is only possible if the GOP is in trouble, and by itself will not save the Republicans, although it may help. Presidential approval ratings went from 24 to 71 in a day when Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon.  Polarization, and the fact that Pence is more identified with Trump than Ford was with Nixon, will make such improvement impossible, but there would still likely be some increase. Such a move might do significant damage to the party, in so far as it would alienate Trump’s hardcore supporters (and unless he goes to prison*, Trump will presumably be vocal and angry about his dismissal).

The incentives for Pence at this point are clear.  He needs to stay as far away as he can from Trump on Russia.  This means continuing to hold to the traditional GOP line, but also making sure that the flow of information is under strict control.  I do not doubt that Pence’s staffers have already been instructed to be extremely careful about the kind of information on Russia that crosses the VP’s desk. If Pence can plausibly depict himself as out of the loop, it makes it very hard to implicate him in the scandal (see also George H.W. Bush and Iran-Contra).  Note that this also means that anyone in the administration fighting against the Trump-Bannon line on Russia will not be able to count on Pence as a reliable ally, as it’s likely that Pence will simply distance himself, rather than engage.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s good or bad if the GOP decides to impeach Trump in favor of Pence. At this point, I’m genuinely more frightened of the damage that Trump could cause than the damage I’m sure Pence would cause, and so I’d “welcome” the ascension of the latter. But a Pence administration is likely to restore a degree of popularity to the GOP (at least in the short term), and it’s almost certain that Pence will be more effective in formulating an agenda and in working with Congress than Trump.  Rock and a hard place, hell or high water, Trump or Pence…

*Do not ever take seriously a story that uses, as its main source, the tweets of John Schindler.

 

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