Coming soon to your local cinema an updated version of the 1994 classic Dumb and Dumber called Worse and Worser starring Donald Trump as Worse and Mike Pence as Worser. That’s the choice and it’s not a pretty one. Replacing a brain-addled, mercurial, stubborn, politically inept (except with his base) critter who occasionally comes out on the right side (leaving Syria, doing an end run around a new cold war with Russia) with an ambitious, radical right, bought-and-paid for pawn of the likes of the Koch brothers, still clinging to his credentials as a valiant warrior of the 1990s culture wars is like mistaking fool’s gold for a real gold mine.
Unimaginable as it may seem, among the U.S. media and political hierarchy, the notion of “never Trump” has caught on. Gail Collins, her fuzzy liberalism on full display in The New York Times, opines — ”Pence seems less likely to get the planet blown up.” Sorry Ms. Collins, a man who has been in the pocket of the Koch brothers since their $200,000 contribution to his 2012 gubernatorial campaign has no qualms about “blowing up the planet” for his good buddies. His leadership of the opposition in Congress to a 2009 climate-friendly “cap and trade” bill violently opposed by the Koch brothers doomed it to an early death. As a consequence, expect no cessation in the effects of unregulated emissions on the air we breathe, the water we drink and the life-span of the planet. Pence is the same guy who called global warming “a myth created by environmentalists in their latest ‘Chicken Little’ attempt to raise taxes.” True, Trump’s EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is stocked with a nest of knuckleheads carrying water for fossil fuel companies and lending their support to corporate-funded efforts to trash America’s remaining open space. But positing VP Pence as a more “reasonable alternative” to the wheeler-dealers in Trump’s EPA is both dangerous and silly.
Adding to the Greek chorus of Trump-haters pining for a Pence presidency is Dana Milbank, now the Op-Ed editor at The Washington Post whose observations run the gamut from snarky asides to pathetic puns. This time however, he fits into the neo-liberal chorus of Pencites in an article headlined “President Pence is sounding better and better.”
Really? Sheldon Whitehouse, the democratic senator from Rhode Island doesn’t agree — “If Pence were to become President for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers—period. He’s been their tool for years.” (as well as their fool). Even right-wing nut, Steve Bannon, has his doubts: “I’m concerned he’d be a President that the Kochs would own.”
How do we make heads or tails of these divergent opinions? Let’s take a stroll down his sometimes-pungent history and tease out the real Mike Pence. Here’s Pence describing himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” In the early nineties as his suffocating brand of evangelical Christianity was making waves in his home state, Indiana, he joined the board of the Indiana Family Institute, a rightwing “think tank” advocating the criminalization of abortion and opposing equal rights for gays. As one of the most vocal supporters of this agenda, Pence was soon appointed to head another hard-right operation, the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Shortly after his arrival, a polemic emerged arguing that unmarried women should be denied access to birth control. It soon became apparent to all that “He was as far right as you could go without falling off the earth but he never really put a foot wrong politically. Beneath the Bible-thumping earnestness was a calculating and ambitious pol.” (Mike Lofgren, former Republican staff member).
After a couple of unsuccessful runs for Congress in the early nineties, he hosted a conservative radio talk show. Known as “his Mikeness” he was a leading voice of the family values army in the culture wars. Pence had lots of bête noires —assisted suicide, insufficient punishment given to a female Air Force pilot charged with involvement in an extramarital affair – “Is adultery no longer a big deal in Indiana and in America.” He defended Big Tobacco – “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill,” His Mikeness unflinchingly pointed to the real “scourge” afflicting American society— “big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric.” But that wasn’t the only cancer trying to destroy Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.” A far greater danger to the American “way of life” was the growing use of day care by working mothers—“pop culture has sold the big lie that ‘Mom doesn’t matter.’” His listeners ate it up.
Destructive Mike Pence
Given the growing popularity of his radio persona, he sailed into Congress with a twelve-point edge. One of the most popular items on his agenda — his promise to oppose “any effort to recognize homosexuals as a discrete…minority entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws.” His congressional stint was marked by the authorship of zero successful bills, although he did introduce sixty-three bills, the most notable of which was The Child Pornography Prevention Act whose real target was anything the evangelical Christian right considered obscene (almost everything in modern culture). His other “successes” included his 2002 vote for the Iraq War, his 2006 support of a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage (which received 236 yes votes but needed 290 to pass), and his focus on the battle to restrict abortion and defund Planned Parenthood. He even threatened to shut down the government if he didn’t get his way. (Sound familiar?) In 2013 as Indiana’s governor, he forced the closure of five Planned Parenthood offices, none of which offered abortion services, all of which offered HIV testing. The result —a noticeable spike in HIV cases in Indiana.
Overall, his congressional tenure was noted more for the prayer sessions he ran for his staff and less for his insight into the issues shaping twenty-first century America. Many of his colleagues called him “Mike Dense” behind his back. Even President Trump got into the act in a discussion of gay rights: “Don’t ask that guy [Pence]—he wants to hang them all!”
Although he made an exploratory investigation into the 2012 presidential race, wiser heads prevailed and he ran for governor instead. As Indiana governor, he made his conservative bones cutting taxes on “job creators,” eliminating the estate tax (a Koch fav), campaigning against labor unions and enacting some of the most conservative health care “reforms” in the nation including demonic abortion restrictions (later overturned by a federal court) and made national headlines with his stand against accepting Syrian refugees into Indiana. All the while the drumbeat of unfettered ambition charted his course. Perhaps his most flagrant use of his gubernatorial powers was his signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act giving the green light to business owners wanting to deny service to gay customers. Unfortunately for his career, it turned out to be a real boneheaded play. The cries of rage on all sides threatened to sink his outsized ambition. Not one to let principle interfere with ambition, he revised the bill and moderated its provisions. Too little, too late, Mike Pence’s chance to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2016 sank to absolute zero.
But all was not lost. As one of his Indiana home-boys pointed out “Mike Pence clearly would like to be in the White House…Everybody knows he would like to be in the White House, and one way to get there is by being the VP.” (Andrew Downs, Indiana Politician) The campaign to make Pence Trump’s vice president was of the hydra-headed variety. First the endorsements: Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s most trusted advisors, portrayed him as a bridge to Christian conservatives (aka Trump’s base), an asset in the Midwest, and a connection to the powerful Koch network (which missed the Trump train in the early going). Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager, was somewhat less enthusiastic referring to Pence’s suitability as “an unfortunate necessity.”
Second on the agenda was some real-time ass kissing. Pence was the man to pull it off. Never one to shy away from cringe-worthy activities in service to grand ambition, Pence spotted Trump’s predilection for advisors who massaged his overblown ego. Over and over, he assured Trump “You’re going to be the next president of the United States… It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve you.” To cement his bona fides with the boss, Pence was quick to tell reporters after a golf game: “He beat me like a drum.” Trump, in turn rewarded such abject subservience with the nomination. Once in office, Pence’s rhetorical excesses reached new heights: “He and I have prayed together. This is somebody who shares our views, shares our values, shares our beliefs.” (remarks to a White House gathering of the president’s evangelical advisory board).
How does it come to pass that a man whose only qualification for high office is his adherence to eighteenth century notions of moral, political, and social values, who believes that homosexuality is a “sin,” that a woman must “submit” to her husband, that evolution is an (unproven) theory, who sponsored an amendment to Obamacare making it legal for government-funded hospitals to turn away dying women needing abortions, and is the leading voice behind the trope of perpetual war, believes the agenda of the religious right should be part of U.S. domestic and foreign policy can be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office? History is in his favor. Of Pence’s forty-seven predecessors, nine eventually became President because of a death or resignation. Long odds but as President Johnson told his friend Claire Booth Luce — “I’m a gambling man, darling, and this is the only chance I’ve got.”
It’s time for Democrats to start seeing the forest for the trees. Be “angry and upset with the conduct of [the] president” (Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib) if you must, but don’t let that become your life’s work. America is in a hell of a mess. Mike Pence and his home boys would love to make it worse. Let’s not give him the chance.
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