House Democrats are moving toward impeaching President Donald Trump, following revelations that he pushed Ukraine to investigate the son of one Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Even if the House votes to impeach Trump, removal by the Republican-controlled Senate still seems highly unlikely — it would take a two-thirds vote to boot him from office, and there’s no sign so far that the GOP would abandon the president.
But if it came to that, what would the country get from a hypothetical President Michael Richard Pence?
The prospect of Pence succeeding Trump in office had already sparked fervent argument long before the prospect of impeachment seriously took hold in the House. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni posed the question this way in 2018: “Are you sure you want to get rid of Donald Trump?” And former Trump White House aide Omarosa Manigault said last year, “We would be begging for the days of Trump if Pence became president.”
Based on my reporting for my new biography of Pence, a President Pence would look a lot like a more conservative version of George W. Bush. Pence would likely take the Grand Old Party back to the salad days before Trump flipped over the bowl. But he’d be far less effective than Bush — and he might even get less accomplished than Trump has.
The Pence boogeyman painted by Democrats and progressives stuck in hand-wringing mode over impeachment is a highly skilled manager of government and congressional vote-wrangler who would easily promote conservative priorities like banning abortion and cutting taxes for the upper class and businesses.
But his career path shows Pence to be unskilled at driving an agenda. In a dozen years in Congress, including two years in leadership, Pence never passed any legislation and never whipped votes (that was left to former GOP whip Eric Cantor). A former right-wing radio talk show host, Pence was cultivated by then-Republican leader John Boehner as the party’s message man in 2008 — no small task, but hardly the post for driving policy.
In four years as governor of Indiana, Pence struggled to set his priorities or push them through a friendly state legislature packed with like-minded Republicans. As with most things, the reason is multifaceted: He spent much of his time plotting a potential presidential run in 2016; he rarely articulated clear proposals; he had no skill at deal making; and he developed a surprising arch-nemesis in the state’s House speaker when he boxed him out of running for governor in 2012. And all that was before his career appeared to go down in flames in 2015, following his disastrous performance defending Indiana’s “religious freedom” law.
On foreign policy, Pence would generally hew to mainstream Republican orthodoxy. Pence has always been a friend to Israel, opposing a Palestinian state for more than two decades. But don’t count on him to support anything that would spark a war in the Middle East. Longtime Pence friend and Indianapolis journalist Russell Pulliam noted to me that as much as Pence derives his political ideology from the Bible, he also balances it against U.S. regional interests and economic feasibility.
When it comes to cultural issues, President Pence would lead the charge to further limit abortion access in the U.S., something well underway in the Trump administration, thanks partly to Pence’s work. Pence has been coordinating efforts to promote a network of crisis pregnancy centers nationwide that push pregnant women away from Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics. And count on Pence to continue to advocate for “religious freedom” measures that would curb protections for LGBTQ people while aiding conservative Christians opposed to same-sex marriage.
But would he actually be able to accomplish many of these priorities? Not likely. As governor, he was wrought by indecision, and on his return to Washington under Trump, he has had a hard time finding votes for Trump’s agenda on Capitol Hill. As one Pence adviser noted to me, Pence’s style is more muted than Trump’s: He’s the guy who comes in after a major “change agent” like Trump or, on the state level, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and keeps things running after the initial revolution.
Pence has long had a tightknit circle of advisers, almost untouched by the chaos of the Trump administration, and that small circle would be with him if he makes it to the Oval Office — whether it’s in 2025 or sometime before the 2020 election, if Democrats do succeed in ousting Trump. The return of Marc Short to be Pence’s chief of staff earlier this year, a decade after he was first hired into Pence’s orbit, marked a return to form for the team. Republicans from the Hill to the White House have consistently described Short as a quiet, smart and loyal operator — extensively versed in the ways of Washington.
Working closely with Short would likely be the same team they built for Pence when he was third-ranking Republican in the House: Matt Lloyd, Josh Pitcock and Kellyanne Conway. The entire crew has remained close and loyal to Pence since then, through his many twists on the way to the White House. They are a small, tight, loyal band of staunch social conservatives, but not strident to the point of ruling out compromise.
Outside of the Bible, after all, Pence’s favorite book is Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” — Kirk, Pence noted once, was a believer in pragmatic conservatism, doing what was achievable and not stonewalling, unless for achievable ends. These two ideas would permeate his decisionmaking from the Oval Office.
And, of course, Karen Pence would remain the single-most important adviser to Pence and the sole gatekeeper to Pence — but their singular focus would be what it’s been since 2008: winning the White House in an election. And most, if not all, decisions would be dictated by that foremost.
Tom LoBianco is a political reporter in Washington and the author of “Piety & Power: Mike Pence and the Taking of the White House.”