There were servings of croissants, macarons and copies of a book entitled So Help Me God. There were reporters but it could not be described as a stampede; one front row seat was nabbed by the Guardian while others assigned to the media were eventually given to regular audience members.
Mike Pence, the former US vice-president, walked into the auditorium at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) thinktank in Washington last week. It was the latest stop on a lengthy book tour that is ostensibly promoting his memoir while also testing the water for a presidential run in 2024.
At event after event, in interview after interview, Pence has framed his book as a story about growing up in small-town Indiana, putting his faith in Jesus Christ and marrying “the girl of my dreams”. But the 63-year-old has also struck a delicate balance when it comes to his former boss, President Donald Trump – coming both to bury Caesar and to praise him.
Pence has repeatedly defended his decision to resist pressure from his boss to overturn the 2020 election – while stopping short of condemning Trump as a traitor who should never hold elected office again.
Asked by the Associated Press what consequences Trump should face for the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, the former VP replied: “That’s up to the American people … And look, I’ll always be proud of the record of the Trump administration.” Asked by NBC’s Meet the Press if the president committed a criminal act in fomenting an insurrection, he answered: “Well, I don’t know if it is criminal to listen to bad advice from lawyers.”
In a town hall broadcast by CNN, Pence said: “Let me just say that it was a great honor for me to be a part of the Trump-Pence administration … But in the end, our administration did not end well.” And he told CBS News’s Face the Nation: “While the president and I parted amicably, I believe as we look to the future, we’ll have better choices.”
At the AEI last week Pence charted a similar course, seeking to embrace the Trump legacy while simultaneously keeping the man at arm’s length. They were always an odd couple: a blowhard celebrity billionaire from New York accused of sexual harassment and a pious midwestern governor who refuses to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife.
But Pence claimed that an unlikely bond formed between them.
“President Trump wasn’t just my president, he was my friend,” he said “We really developed a close working relationship, which I know surprises people … It isn’t that we didn’t have differences, and I recount a few of them in the book, but during the administration I thought it was always important that I express my opinion to the president in private.
“The relationship between the president and the vice-president is very unique in all the American government and I never wanted to ever be in a position where there’s any daylight between me and the president. Loyalty is the essence of a vice-president’s job. The only higher loyalty you have is to God and to the constitution.”
No one but Trump could have defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, he argued, a realisation he made after seeing the way Trump connected with voters in Indiana. Pence said as he travels the country now, people approach him yearning for a return to the Trump-Pence administration’s record on energy independence, wages, employment, the military and appointing conservatives to the courts.
“But in the same breath, almost invariably people say to me that they they want leadership that has the potential of uniting our country around our highest ideals and solving some of these long-term problems. And I think that all begins with civility and respect. I think democracy depends on heavy doses of civility.”
Pence cited his Christian faith and his friendships with Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, and John Lewis, who one year asked him to join the commemoration of Bloody Sunday by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. “I didn’t agree with either of them on almost anything that I could think of except that they were both good men and truly great men and it was an honor to call them friends. So I think that’s what people are looking for now.”
It was a rebuke to Trump’s brand of abusive, bilious and divisive politics, a bet that people are now tired of that circus and looking for a more sombre tone. As he contemplates going head-to-head with Trump for the Republican nomination in 2024, Pence appears to be making a case that he can deliver a similar policy agenda minus the name-calling and insulting-throwing. In short, Trump-lite.
The audience at the AEI event included Ryan Streeter, 53, who in 1988 drove Pence around Indiana in a Buick Sedan when he was first running for Congress and later worked as a policy adviser when Pence was Indiana governor.
Streeter, now director of domestic policy at the AEI, said: “He’s very honestly trying to hold on to the things that he believes policy wise they did that were good while now very clearly creating some distance between him and Trump’s style and maybe his focus on issues that are maybe too heavy in a way that he wouldn’t do. That seems to be very deliberate. January 6 created the historic event that necessitated this separation between the two.”
Pence, who has nurtured White House ambitions since his teens, told the audience that he and his family would spend time over the holidays listening to Americans and deciding on their future. A Morning Consult opinion poll this week showed him backed by 8% of potential Republican primary voters, trailing behind Trump on 49% and the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, on 31% but ahead of Liz Cheney, Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley on 2% each.
Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who recently interviewed Pence in Indianapolis during his book tour, believes that his call for a return to a more polite political discourse could help distinguish him from Trump and his imitators. “The great thing about Pence says he’s not afraid to broach tender or controversial subjects but he does it with civility.
“When he gets hecklers, instead of saying kick their asses like Trump would say, he says that’s the voice of freedom speaking right there, that’s why we have the first amendment, so you can yell at me if you want to. He just has his very gracious, accommodating style. I’ve known the guy for 35 years. I’ve never seen him yell once and, when you’ve been a governor or a congressman, you sure have plenty of reason to yell from time to time.”
Michael D’Antonio, co-author of The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence, agreed: “I would think that he’s also considering DeSantis who, away from his base, is a rather obnoxious guy and just as lacking civility in Trump, so maybe Pence is betting on all of this coming to a head and I don’t think it’s a bad bet. Everyone’s so exhausted by the meanness that, if someone can persuade the Republican party in its entirety that there’s an end coming and a return to what may have existed in 2010, they’ll go for it.”
But he added: “The only hang-up is that his profound anti-abortion and anti-choice record will make him a hard sell in the general election to suburban women and all non-evangelicals and he may be a great target for the pro-choice movement. His background is also very anti-LGBTQ in a more extreme way than Trump’s ever was and it’s on the record. He can’t run away from that.”
Indeed, Pence could suffer the worst of both worlds. The Trump base may never forgive him for refusing to support the president’s attempted coup, as evidenced by the cries of “Hang Mike Pence!” at the Capitol and subsequent incidents of booing. Democrats, meanwhile, have cast him as a lapdog, a loyal and sycophantic second-in-command who defended Trump through every crisis and controversy until he finally became a reluctant “hero” on January 6.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, said: “The challenge for him is to separate himself from being a certified Trumpster, even though he is trying to claim a line of separation. The smart candidate in the Republican primary is going to wrap him around a Trump axle every chance they get. He cannot really offer himself as an alternative because there are people who have several more layers of separation from Trump, whatever he does.”
Reed Galen, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, added: “He’s definitely running for president. He’s the only one for whom running against Trump actually makes sense because Trump tried to kill him. I get it, I don’t even fault him for it. The guy tried to kill you, you want to run against him: I’m OK with that. But the truth is he’s a bowl of vanilla ice-cream.”