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No Excuses

The uses of Mike Pence and Chris Christie.

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks to supporters during his presidential campaign launch on June 7, 2023 in Ankeny, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Conventional wisdom has it that the three newest entrants into the Republican primary don’t stand the barest chance of winning, that they’ll be lucky if their combined national polling breaks double digits in the end.

Well, I’m here to tell you: The conventional wisdom is correct.

Mike Pence, Chris Christie, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum could plausibly reach 10 percent collectively, mostly on the strength of Pence’s name recognition, but I wouldn’t bet a ton on it. Christie and Burgum will be lucky to make the debates given the donor threshold set by the RNC. And Pence couldn’t safely navigate a gathering of his own party’s base without needing personal security.

It bears repeating on the occasion of his announcement: Mike Pence will not lead a party whose most ardent devotees have been heard to chant “Hang Mike Pence.”

But I’m grateful that he and Christie are in the race, even so.

For now. If they’re still distant also-rans in polling later this year, they should bow out and give the anti-Trump vote a chance to consolidate behind a viable challenger. “Come November, late December, if you’re sitting in low single digits, get your butt out of the race, let’s narrow this thing down to two or three candidates and really figure out where the party is going to go,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu advised the field last month. This week he led by example, declining to run for president himself for fear that doing so would further divide the “anyone but Trump” bloc.

His fear is sensible. Pence and Christie can’t win but they can inadvertently help Trump to victory by lingering. The former VP could siphon off evangelical votes in Iowa from a higher-polling Trump alternative; the 7 percent Christie won in New Hampshire in 2016 might be enough to tip that primary if he manages to duplicate it next year.

Their usefulness to the anti-Trump cause carries an expiration date.

But they are useful, their meager polling aside.

My worry when the campaign began was that no one would lay a glove on Trump.

Ron DeSantis was always likely to challenge him but Nikki Haley isn’t wrong to mock the governor as an “echo” of the frontrunner. For traditional conservatives, a fight between Trump-style illiberalism and DeSantis-style illiberalism isn’t much of a fight, the moral imperative of ensuring that a coup-plotter isn’t returned to power aside.

Whether DeSantis would attack Trump over their differences with vim was also uncertain. He bit his lip for months this spring as his opponent called him a grandma-killer, a COVID catastrophe, and a pedophile. (Coming soon: Insinuations that he’s poorly-endowed.) Any candidate who swings hard at Trump risks offending the diehard cultists in his base and losing their votes in a general election, as the governor is keenly aware. It looked like he might enter the race and end up treading too lightly, hoping that death or the Justice Department might solve his Trump problem for him.

But that’s not what happened. In fact, as of Wednesday, three different candidates are prosecuting the case against Trump aggressively.

DeSantis has been at it since he announced two weeks ago, attacking the frontrunner vigorously on numerous fronts for having betrayed the Republican base on policy. If you’re the sort of populist who can’t stand to see Trump personally impugned, the governor is offering an impersonal reason to abandon him: Trump the man is fine and illiberalism as a governing philosophy is wonderful but you need a younger, more competent, more electable steward to implement it effectively and transform the country.

Christie’s approach, on the other hand, is quite personal. At his announcement event on Tuesday he made a full-spectrum case against Trump’s fitness for office that no prominent Republican this side of Liz Cheney has made since 2015. “A lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog is not a leader,” he warned a crowd in New Hampshire. He called Trump a “loser” based on his electoral record and dismissed his family as grifters. And he nodded at his opponent’s autocratic ambitions: “Beware of the leader in this country, who you have handed leadership to, who has never made a mistake, who has never done anything wrong, who when something goes wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. And who has never lost.”

That’s the Never Trump argument against Trump. DeSantis’ pitch is the MAGA argument against Trump, insofar as one exists. Somewhere between the two is Mike Pence’s argument against Trump, emphasizing sharp differences in policy and fitness. Pence is running on old-fashioned three-legged-stool Reagan conservatism replete with entitlement reform, strict abortion bans, and resolute hawkishness abroad, just in case there’s anyone left in the party who prefers that to what Trump and DeSantis are selling.

But Pence’s announcement speech also included an extended riff on January 6, which surprised me. Given where the balance of opinion within the party falls on that issue, one might have assumed he’d do his best to duck the subject. Not so. Watch the ad that his super PAC rolled out on Thursday morning.

“Anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence said Wednesday, to applause. I didn’t think he had it in him.

It was another line from his announcement speech that jumped off the screen when I saw it, though.

“Now voters will be faced with the same choice.” That, in nine words, is the value of having Mike Pence and Chris Christie in this race.

Answer me this. Why are Trump critics so desperate to see the other candidates attack him?

“Because he deserves it,” you might say. Well, yes: Few forms of moral catharsis are as gratifying as watching a bully get roundhoused. And few bullies deserve it more than Trump.

But any one of us, I hope, would trade that shallow catharsis for a guarantee that he’ll never be president again. If the attacks from Pence and Christie diminish his chances of winning the primary then they’re valuable. If they don’t, they’re cheap thrills.

“They do diminish his chances of winning!” you might reply. That’s also Christie’s position, that the only way out of this nightmare is through.

There’s logic to that. You can’t persuade Republicans to move away from Trump if you won’t give them a reason to find fault with him. Christie, Pence, and DeSantis have begun listing the reasons.

And, with conservative media gatekeeping being what it is, many primary voters might never before have heard them. Rank-and-file Republicans have gotten used to hand-waving away liberal criticisms of January 6, but what happens when they hear Mike Pence himself explain how close he came to death that day from a Trump-incited mob?

“People have been told one thing, but they haven’t heard the other side,” Pence adviser Marc Short said yesterday about January 6. “They’ve heard it from mainstream media, but they haven’t heard from a conservative perspective.” Primary voters are now getting that perspective. Soon, and at long last, the scales will fall from the eyes—or from enough eyes to cripple Trump and boost Pence or some other alternative to the nomination.

So the theory goes. I’m skeptical.

A party willing to invent and adopt an entirely new morality to justify its continued allegiance to Trump will not be guilted out of it by a figure who, they’re convinced, abetted Democratic theft of the last presidential election. And Chris Christie, a historically unpopular figure in a large and growing Republican field, has zero chance of going “right through” Trump no matter how dogged he is in lambasting him.

On Wednesday Jonah Goldberg made a more intriguing case for the value of Pence’s and Christie’s criticism, one that seems plausible. For eight years the Republican Party has cultivated the norm that to criticize Trump is to betray the American right. When I was a young and innocent blogger, the term “RINO” had a specific ideological meaning. Since 2015, it means “someone who’s critical of Trump.”

As the man himself comes under attack in the primary, Jonah wrote, so might that norm.

Imagine if Christie were willing to let me vent my frustrations at him and I did so, reading him the riot act. And he responded, “Okay, what do you think I should do about it?” I might say something like, “tell the truth about the guy” or “go after him full-tilt.” Well, he’s doing that. I don’t know if it’s mostly penance or ambition—I have to assume it’s both—but he’s the one GOP candidate willing to deliver the full indictment. 

I don’t know that running for president is the best way to do that, but it’s not obvious that it isn’t. He’ll get a lot more attention this way. And that’s not all bad. The real test will be whether he moves the Overton Window for the other candidates to be harsher or whether they respond by defending Trump more as a way to toady up to voters who don’t want to hear it. I think some will go one way and others will go the other way, but on net, I think it’s at least possible that he normalizes criticism of Trump in the primaries.

Normalizing disapproval of Trump on the right certainly would be a net benefit. Breaking his dominance of the party is the necessary first step toward normalcy from the personality cult that the GOP has become.

But I’m skeptical here too. Pence and especially Christie are unpopular on the right to begin with because they dared to cross Trump in the past. It’s possible, if not likely, that their polling will drop and their unfavorables will rise because they chose to attack him this week. (The online reaction isn’t encouraging.) Ron DeSantis might even suffer by association, lumped in with the “RINOs” Pence and Christie for seeming to join in the Trump pile-on. 

In trying to shatter the norm, the norm might shatter them.

Even if some criticism of Trump is normalized, not every form will be. At a town hall with CNN on Wednesday night, Pence was asked how he felt about his old boss possibly being indicted by the Justice Department for concealing classified documents. It was a gift-wrapped opportunity to build on the case that his opponent is unfit for office, but Pence couldn’t bring himself to do it. He choked.

Primary voters might give him some leeway on holding hard feelings over January 6, seeing as how he was almost lynched and all. But “siding” with the “deep state” against Trump on a criminal prosecution would be unforgivable. And Pence knew it.

So much for normalizing criticism.

Yet, amid all this skepticism, I continue to think having Pence and Christie in the race slugging away is useful for anti-Trumpers. And not just for the obvious reason that their attacks will damage him among swing voters before the general election.

Here’s why. Realistically, Trump is probably going to win this primary. It’s not a sure thing but it’s the outcome you’d wager on if money were at stake.

That being so, I think the best thing that can come out of the campaign is depriving traditional conservatives of an excuse to mindlessly vote Republican next year for hyperpartisan reasons.

With Pence and Christie—and DeSantis—all offering strong reasons to oppose Trump, there’ll be no defenses left for this wretched party if it chooses to renominate him anyway.

There were many excuses for voting for Trump in 2016. “He’s an outsider.” “He’s something different after years of losing with establishment candidates.” “He’s running against the most hated Democrat in America.” “He won’t be as bad in office as everyone thinks.”

There was a straightforward excuse in 2020. “He’s the incumbent.” 

In 2024, post-impeachment, post-insurrection, and post-indictment, there should be no illusions about what the party has become and what it desires if it opts to triple down on Trump. But without Republican challengers attacking him eagerly, you can imagine what sort of excuses a hyperpartisan might contrive to protect their illusions and justify voting for Team Red yet again.

“If only some Republican had made the full-spectrum case against Trump’s basic fitness for office forthrightly.” “If only some Republican had gone straight at him over January 6.” “If only some Republican had run to his right and offered voters Trumpy populism without Trump.” Why, it’d be unfair to draw any moral conclusions about the right and its party for preferring Trump if no one was willing to make the actual arguments against him.

Well, three candidates are willing. The jury of Republican voters will listen to them and render a verdict. How can any classical liberal in good conscience give the GOP their vote next fall if, having heard the evidence, that jury rules in Trump’s favor?

That’s the essence of Pence’s point when he says “voters will be faced with the same choice” between Trump and the Constitution that he was faced with. He recognizes that it’s the same moral test; he passed it on January 6 and Republican voters are likely to fail it next year. By framing the choice as arrestingly as he has, Pence is arguing nothing more or less than that support for a Trump-led GOP can no longer be reconciled with support for the constitutional order.

Even if he, uh, doesn’t quite realize it.

No more excuses. Attorneys Pence, Christie, and DeSantis have a robust case and they’re presenting it forcefully. If the jury acquits, it’s because they support the defendant’s criminal activity, not because they’re ignorant of it. Anyone who continues to reward them with votes for the sake of partisanship will do so with their eyes fully open as to what sort of movement they’re empowering. By the end of this, we will all have clarity.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.