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Candidate Pence Takes on Donald Trump
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Candidate Pence Takes on Donald Trump

At his campaign launch the former vice president offered a scathing indictment of his old boss.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks during his campaign launch event at the FFA Enrichment Center of the Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, Iowa, on Wednesday. (Photo by STEPHEN MATUREN/AFP via Getty Images)

Former Vice President Mike Pence declared his old running mate unfit for the White House, using his 2024 campaign launch to call out Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and make the case to GOP voters for his own brand of constitutional conservatism.

“I believe anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States. And I believe anyone who asks others to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence told a crowd of supporters in Ankeny, Iowa, Wednesday afternoon.

Pence proudly ticked off the list of accomplishments achieved by what he called the “Trump-Pence administration.” But in unequivocal terms, Pence also defended his critical decision to refuse Trump’s demand that he help overturn the 2020 election while presiding over the joint session of Congress that met January 6, 2021, to certify President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. In announcing his presidential bid, Pence cast the 2024 race as a similar inflection point for the GOP. 

“President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution,” he said. “Now voters will be given the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.”

Pence stuck to the same script during a nationally televised CNN town hall with Iowa voters Wednesday evening, differentiating himself from Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running second in the GOP primary, by ruling out pardoning people convicted of participating in the riot at the Capitol on January 6. However, Pence declined to take a position on whether he would pardon Trump of any possible convictions related to alleged wrongdoing being investigated by federal authorities.

Additionally, the former vice president suggested he would prefer the Justice Department pass on prosecuting Trump regardless of the merits of any particular case because doing so would be too politically explosive. “No one is above the law. But with regard to the unique circumstances here,” Pence said, “I would just hope that there would be a way for them to move forward without the dramatic and drastic and divisive step of indicting a former president of the United States. We’ve got to find a way to move our country forward.” 

Coming after nearly a quarter-century in elected office and on the day he turned 64, Pence’s campaign kickoff fulfills his career ambition to seek the White House. But the events of January 6 now define Pence’s political profile. His 2024 strategy, to make not just a practical case against Trump but a moral argument, reflects this new reality for the former congressman and ex-Indiana governor. The result was perhaps the most scathing indictment of Trump from any Republican contender.

Pence joined his case against Trump’s fitness for office with a broader critique of the direction the former president and other Republicans are taking the party: He accused Trump of “retreating from the cause of the unborn” and treating the pro-life position as an “inconvenience”; he claimed Trump and Biden have the same position against reforming insolvent entitlement programs; he even said Trump would “walk away” from America’s role as leader of the free world as demonstrated by his praise for dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

“When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he promised to govern as a conservative. Together we did just that,” Pence said. “Today he makes no such promise.” 

Pence’s broader argument is that Trump has abandoned the party’s supposed affinity for constitutional order and conservative values. The former vice president’s hope is to reassert the primacy of his brand of Reaganesque conservatism—a major theme of his campaign announcement video—which he credits for the success of their 2016 campaign, the party’s last successful outing in a national election.

“I know we can beat Joe Biden,” Pence said. “But we must resist the politics of personality and the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles, and we must stand firm on a traditional Republican agenda of a strong national defense, fiscal responsibility, and traditional values that led us to victory in the past and will lead us to victory again.”

Although fresh acquaintances and polar opposites personally and temperamentally seven years ago, the future 45th president and his running mate formed an effective political marriage. Trump, the pugilistic populist, attracted white working class former Democrats and low propensity voters into the Republican coalition. Pence, the traditional conservative who prizes civility, vouched for the billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star with skeptical GOP regulars, keeping them in the fold.

Through the myriad controversies that roiled Trump’s presidency, Pence refused to break ranks with his boss publicly. The loyal Hoosier stuck with advice gleaned from George H.W. Bush’s biography—that a vice president should keep disagreements with the commander in chief private. The plan, no doubt, was to win reelection in 2020 and mount a presidential bid four years later as Trump’s heir apparent. But the loss to Biden, and January 6, made it untenable for Pence to be the one to take up Trump’s mantle. 

In Iowa on Wednesday, Pence laid bare his break from Trump over the counting of electoral votes on January 6.

“My former running mate continues to insist that I had the right to overturn the election. But President Trump was wrong then, and he’s wrong now,” he said. “I will always believe, by God’s grace, I did my duty that day. I kept my oath to ensure the peaceful transfer of power under the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Polling shows Republican voters largely agree with Trump on the matter of the 2020 election, believing it was illegitimate or at the very least, conducted unfairly. But Pence is trying to appeal to the better, more constitutional angels of the Republican Party’s nature.

“I had hoped he would come around and see that he had been misled about my role that day. But that was not to be,” Pence said. “So let me say, I stand before you today as a candidate for president to say to the Republican party, the Republican party must be the party of the Constitution of the United States.”

The glaring question is whether there’s a market for that sort of talk, and Pence’s brand of principled, but civil conservative Republicanism, among today’s GOP voting base.

Michael Warren is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was an on-air reporter at CNN and a senior writer at the Weekly Standard. When Mike is not reporting, writing, editing, and podcasting, he is probably spending time with his wife and three sons.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.