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Pence Runs Away From the Circus 
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Pence Runs Away From the Circus 

A living testimony about the price of principle.

Karen Pence and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence leave the stage after he suspended his campaign for president during the Republican Jewish Coalition's Annual Leadership Summit at The Venetian Resort Las Vegas on October 28, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote, “with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”

Unless you’re in the stands cheering and jeering, how much fun you are likely to have at the big top depends on whether you are one of the ones getting dunked or the ones being dangled. And last week, it was former Vice President Mike Pence’s turn to swing.

The good news for Pence was that this time, the hanging was figurative, not the real one his foes once demanded.

In its coverage of Pence’s exit, Politico sneered at how the holy roller ended his campaign in Las Vegas, “Sin City,” and congratulated itself for a piece from last week originally headlined “Inside Mike Pence’s Sad, Dwindling Presidential Campaign.” The 3,896-word saga about Pence’s woes was accompanied by a photo of a puny, bored-looking crowd, which the writer bragged “went viral, reducing [Pence] to a punchline on late-night TV.”

But, of course, comics and talk-show hosts didn’t need any help from Politico in making a punchline out of Pence. He’s the kind of political figure comedy writers dream of: earnest, corny, and proper. A guy like Pence is the foil in every National Lampoon movie, the object of the eye rolls, the comic archetype of musical theater. Squaresville, man.

Indeed, popular culture’s disdain for squares like Pence is part of what Donald Trump exploited so successfully to upend presidential politics. When Saturday Night Live asked Trump to host the show in November 2015, in the heat of the Republican nominating contest, it was because Trump was in on the joke. Imagine SNL inviting Ben Carson—Trump’s chief rival at the time—to Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. No chance for Dr. Gifted Hands, the Bible-thumping hero of an oh-so-square Horatio Alger story.

But Trump was no goody-goody. He could laugh about how much pornographic performers loved him, even before we found out just how much he loved them. No prude was he.

After the Obama years and all that high-minded regret and sniffy moralizing, here was a guy who got it. Maybe the snark merchants in the media didn’t take Trump seriously, but neither did he, right? Just like them, Trump was pointing out how out-of-touch and pompous the typical politicians were. He was one of the wise-cracking cynics, and good at it, too.

Not Mike Pence. 

It took courage for Mike Pence to run for president, and it took courage for him to quit. 

He faced long odds in running, but took on the challenge anyway. The MAGA folks will never forgive him for his disloyalty to Trump in refusing to help steal the 2020 election, but the anti-MAGA crowd wasn’t willing to forget that the disloyalty had come so late. 

But Pence took his chance anyway, and in the process, took back some control of his own story. Not since John Nance Garner opposed Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1940 has any former vice president gone up against his former running mate (the third bite at the apple for both Trump and FDR). The most intense Trump critics will say that Pence was not hard enough on his former boss, but the record will reflect that not only did Pence stay upright on January 6, he tried to raise the alarm in his party about the dangers of returning a populist demagogue to power.

It was pretty obviously not just an ego trip, though. Pence’s departure was not shocking, but the timing still came as a surprise. The conventional move would have been to do what Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina is doing now: Go “all in” on Iowa and wait it out. One more debate. One more infusion of cash from donors. One more try. 

Pence didn’t even milk the story by hinting to the press that his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition would be major remarks and scheduling a bunch of interviews around it. He just got up there and shot himself out of a cannon.

About that circus Mencken wrote about—the one with the baptism and hangings thrown in. The author wasn’t so much concerned about what would happen to the performers as he was the fans.

“The men the American people admire most are the most daring liars; the men they detest most are those who try to tell them the truth,” Mencken continued. “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will get their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Ain’t it a fact.

Whatever dignity Pence sacrificed to join Trump’s circus, he’s gotten a good measure of it back. And in the process, he provided a living testimony to his fellow Republicans about the price of principle. It won’t get him much status with the writers of late-night punchlines, but he set an example about which he and his family can be proud. 

We’ll now see whether the other members of the traveling troupe of Republican candidates can get the lesson.

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Chris Stirewalt

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.