In the restless search among Republicans for a way to avoid more undiluted Trumpism, rival candidates are choosing some pretty bad messages, as I noted at New York:
Naturally former vice-president Mike Pence wants to rebrand himself in his 2024 presidential campaign. He’s known to the world as the cringingly obsequious Trump sidekick who refused to give the Boss the unconstitutional boost he needed to stop Joe Biden’s confirmation as president-elect on January 6, 2021. In MAGA land, he will never, ever be forgiven for this “betrayal” of Donald Trump. In seeking a new identity, Pence is unsurprisingly returning to his pre-Trump image as a methodical movement-conservative warhorse with a particular connection to the Christian right (albeit one whose political career all but self-immolated thanks to his clumsy handling of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Indiana).
In campaigning as the man who can return the GOP and the country to pre-Trump conservatism, Pence is obviously scratching a deep itch among Republican elites who want to imagine that the 45th presidency was just a nightmare that produced a lot of madness and some nice tax cuts. There’s a big problem, though. Practically everything the former veep wants the GOP to stand for is deeply unpopular, as this summary of the Pence message from the New York Times illustrates:
“Mr. Pence is working to carve out space in the Republican primary field by appealing to evangelicals, adopting a hard-line position in support of a federal abortion ban, promoting free trade and pushing back against Republican efforts to police big business on ideological grounds. He faces significant challenges, trails far behind in the polls and has made no effort to channel the populist energies overtaking the Republican Party.”
Imposing a strict national abortion ban is very unpopular outside (and to some extent inside) the Republican base, as Trump has repeatedly acknowledged. Free trade is a creed as outmoded as the free coinage of silver and is anathema in much of the heartland areas Republicans rely on. “Populist” conservative efforts to mess with corporate policies are irresponsible and hard to maintain, yet they help insulate Republicans from their ancient image as Wall Street toadies. But Pence’s unpopularity contest doesn’t end there:
“Unlike almost every major Republican running for president, Mr. Pence still defends former President George W. Bush’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, though he acknowledged in the interview that the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ intelligence that Mr. Bush used to justify the Iraqi invasion was wrong.”
And for dessert:
“Mr. Pence says Social Security and Medicare must be trimmed back as part of any serious plan to deal with the national debt …
“Mr. Pence said he would ‘explain to people’ how the ‘debt crisis’ would affect their children and grandchildren. He says his plan to cut benefits won’t apply to Social Security and Medicare payments for people in retirement today or who will retire in the next 25 years. But he will pitch ideas to cut spending for people under 40.”
Social Security and Medicare cuts are nearly as unpopular among Republican voters as they are among Democratic and independent voters, which is very unpopular indeed. And Republican politicians (most notably and recently George W. Bush and Paul Ryan) have forever sought to “explain to people” why it’s somehow fair to literally grandfather in the retirement benefits of old folks while screwing over their children and grandchildren with half a loaf or less. It hasn’t worked.
The axiom Pence is running on is simple: There was nothing wrong with old-school Reagan-Bush Republicanism until the Bad Man came along (with Pence’s sycophantic help, by the way) to wreck everything with his demagogic heresies. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, there was a lot wrong with where Republicans were heading going into 2016, beginning with the simple fact that the non-college-educated white voters on which the GOP had begun to depend didn’t like free trade, slavery to big business, “entitlement reform,” or “forever wars” and warmed to a presidential candidate who pledged to overturn the party Establishment that promoted these shibboleths as though they came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. If Pence succeeds in making himself known as the would-be president who wants to get rid of half of Trump’s more popular positions, his own popularity (his favorable-unfavorable ratio according to the FiveThirtyEight polling averages is 36-53) is likely to fade even more as voters begin to understand him.