HOWEY: Mike Pence’s greatest political risk

First lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence greet supporters at a rally where Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Published:
Updated:
Brian Howey

NASHVILLE, Ind. – It has been fascinating to watch Mike and Karen Pence orchestrate his ascension onto the national stage. It has been a meticulous crusade of control. As a congressman and governor of Indiana, Mike Pence rarely strayed from a tight set of talking points. His inner circle is constricted, calculating and guarded.

Within this context, it is absolutely stunning to watch Vice President Pence consign such a controlled career to Donald Trump’s motorcycle sidecar as the latter launches into the most racially-tinged presidential chapter since Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace ran in 1968.

On Aug. 1, my Howey Politics Indiana analysis was that it's a “reckless” course for the Pences, with my penultimate paragraph reading: “This is flint and spark in extreme drought conditions. President Trump is not uniting Americans, he is exploiting the urban/rural divide along racial lines that are pulled taut these days. An errant spark goaded by the right quote at the wrong time could have devastating consequences.”

This was published two days before the mass shooting atrocities in El Paso and Dayton, claiming another 30 lives and injuring dozens more.

The El Paso shooter – who I will not lend the sought-after infamy by mentioning his name – published a manifesto on 8chan just moments before opening fire. It was teeming with white nationalist diatribes against “race-mixing” along with the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The Dayton shooter appears to have sought association with Antifa, the leftist bookend to white supremacy. Isolate the fringe 1% of the American bell curve and you’ll find the warrens for these two latest cowardly shooters.

The problem for Trump and, by association, Pence was the former’s own rhetoric warning of “invasions,” and amplified on Facebook by the Trump campaign and the Prosper Group based in Indianapolis. The searing Exhibit A here was a MAGA rally in Panama City last May when Trump described a Latino “invasion,” asking the crowd, “How do you stop these people? You can’t.” Someone in the crowd yelled: “Shoot them.” The audience cheered and Trump smiled before quipping, “Only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

So it took just a couple of days for this flint and spark to set fire. Before the dead could be laid to rest in Ohio and Texas, there was an incident at Times Square in New York City Tuesday night. A motorcycle backfired, setting off a chaotic stampede. A similar scenario occurred at a Utah shopping mall after a sign fell. Fear and panick are now in the American psyche. This is a jittery nation caught in a cycle of atrocity.

As governor, Pence was quite aware of race. He dutifully appeared at the Indiana Black Expo. He had relationships with the 10-Point Coalition. When the journalist Amos Brown died unexpectedly, Pence honored him posthumously. Whatever perception you had about Gov. Pence, the word “racist” was not part of the parlance.

We can speculate that to the credit of Pence he may have used his Monday lunches with the president to urge him to back off, which Trump more or less did at the MAGA rally in Cincinnati last week. That would be consistent with Pence’s careful calculations.

In my four decades covering Indiana politics, I cannot recall a gubernatorial, congressional, legislative, statewide or mayoral candidate campaigning with anything even approaching racially divisive rhetoric we’ve seen from Trump.

When Pence was with the Indiana Policy Review in the mid-1990s, he wrote, "Throughout our history, we have seen the presidency as the repository of all of our highest hopes and ideals and values. To demand less is to do an injustice to the blood that bought our freedoms."

On Election Night 2016, author Michael Lewis wrote that minutes after Trump won the presidency, Karen Pence rejected a kiss from her husband. "You got what you wanted, Mike. Now leave me alone," she reportedly said. Her ire, exacerbated by the "Access Hollywood" audio of Trump bragging about grabbing women in their privates, was for another reason. The Pence calculus for winning the White House was to take a four-month risk in running with Trump. After they lost, he would get a Fox News show, campaign for Republicans and collect IOUs, then emerge as the frontrunner in 2020.

His political fate may rest with how successful he is in keeping Trump's rhetoric toned down. The boys in the Pence backshop might keep in mind that in 2024, the veep’s most likely primary opponent will be former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. She exited the Trump administration before the most racially overt chapters of the Trump reelect were set in motion.

As governor of South Carolina, she was in office during the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston in 2015. “I know what that rhetoric can do. I saw it happen,” Haley said. She also assailed candidate Trump for not forcefully disavowing support from white supremacists. “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK,” Haley said. “That is not a part of our party. We will allow not allow that in our country.”

Now Pence risks taking on all of the incendiary baggage of Trump. The shrewdest move Mike Pence could make today is to decline a second veep nomination, then prepare for 2024 on his own terms.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.