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Mike Pence Plants His Flag at the ‘Unbridgeable Divide’
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Mike Pence Plants His Flag at the ‘Unbridgeable Divide’

His fight for the survival of the GOP.

Former Vice President Mike Pence during a town hall at New England College on September 6, 2023, in Henniker, New Hampshire. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

The Republican presidential nominating contest so far has been very much about Donald Trump, but not very much with him.

Part of this is because he is the frontrunner, and not just any frontrunner, but the de facto incumbent in the race. When you’re way ahead, there’s not much incentive to get out there and mix things up. As President Joe Biden shows on the Democratic side, when you’re way ahead and have the party apparatus on your side, you don’t go looking for a fight. The status quo works just fine for both frontrunners.

Another part is because Trump is busy with other things, namely trying to keep himself out of prison. His emphasis on his many legal woes is a form of campaigning itself since the fundamental question he is asking voters is: “Which side are you on?” In a world where the choice is between victory for Trump or submission to the Biden Justice Department—a world in which support for the head of the party still feels like an act of defiance—why should he campaign?

 I have likened Trump to his fellow late-20th-century celebrity, O.J. Simpson. The criminal charges against him may make Trump a figure of greater revulsion to most Americans, but for a vocal minority, it enhances his status and gives him greater credibility.

We don’t see Trump on the debate stage or holding town halls because he doesn’t need to and doing so would admit the possibility that Republicans have a choice beyond siding with Trump or Biden’s posse of allegedly dirty deputies. 

The primaries are still a long way off and the existence of a choice beyond the binary one Trump suggests may yet admit itself to the collective consciousness of the GOP. A loss in Iowa or New Hampshire or both is certainly possible and one can certainly imagine Trump going bust. But probably not. 

No incumbent has ever been defeated in the era of presidential primaries. While Trump is a weak incumbent and presides over a party bitterly divided even compared to Biden and the Democrats, most Republicans fear a primary fight and a lesser-known candidate. Analysis paralysis produces an inertia that favors incumbents.

That’s a reality that few of Trump’s rivals can acknowledge. The many failures of Ron DeSantis’ campaign, for example, stem substantially from a strategic misconception that Trump supporters backed the former president because of his policies or postures rather than being devoted to the person—the idea—of Trump. Cults of personality do not disband over dogma.

Warming to the fight, though, are Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, and Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. They join former Trump transition chief and two-term New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the fight for the committed minority of Republican voters who are very much opposed to Trump.

Haley is tentative, with her campaign trying a bank shot at her former boss, deriding DeSantis and the fast-talking Vivek Ramaswamy by saying they “fall all over themselves to copy Trump on everything from policy to his leadership style.” Why that is a bad thing in Haley’s eyes is not made clear, but the message to voters already opposed to Trump is evident: Don’t fall for what her campaign calls “Trump-lite.”

It’s a very cagey move that the former South Carolina governor no doubt hopes will leave her in the good graces of Trump supporters if Trump is forced out of the race or loses his grip on the party. 

Pence, though, is laying it on the line. In a speech this week, he denounced Trump and his imitators in the party as abandoning conservatism for the “siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles.”

Pence is addressing his central challenge in trying to unite the anti-Trump wing of the party. How can Pence, who so often defended Trump’s recklessness and dishonesty while praising him for “broad-shouldered leadership,” now prosecute that same man? Pence’s tale of a conversion at the crossroads of January 6 will convince some, but is it enough for a beleaguered clutch of conservatives who have other options in the race?

Here, Pence applies tough medicine, saying that “the fundamental divide between these two factions is unbridgeable.” Where Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott offer a way around the problem for the conflict-averse, Pence lays it bare. “Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party,” he told a New Hampshire audience, “the Republican Party as we have long known it will cease to exist.”

The truth is that the Republican Party today looks so deeply divided that it would struggle badly in a general election with a mopy but substantially united Democratic Party. Pence is telling the GOP that the “unbridgeable divide” is worth fighting over anyway.

The former vice president still has to square the circle of how he can believe it essential that Trump never be president again but that he would support his party’s nominee, even if it is Trump. Those two ideas cannot coexist.

But what he did succeed in doing was raising a banner to let the disaffected third of Republicans know that he was volunteering for the fight, and that the fight is worth having even if it hurts the short-term prospects for the party. 


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 41.6%
Average disapproval: 53.8%
Net score: -12.2 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: no change

[Average includes: Wall Street Journal: 42% approve-57% disapprove; Emerson: 43% approve-47% disapprove; Fox News: 42% approve-58% disapprove; Marist: 42% approve-52% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 39% approve-55% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: OLLIE WOULD HAVE HELPED KEROUAC 

New York Times: “If, on a hot, dry day a fire should break out within a certain 300,000-acre patch of northwest Montana, in an expanse of backcountry between the crest of the Whitefish Range and the glacier-carved peaks that hug the Continental Divide, there’s a good chance Leif Haugen will be the first person on Earth to see it. …  Mr. Haugen has worked for more than half of his 52 years as a fire lookout, scanning the larch and pine wilderness from a one-room mountaintop cabin. Alone most of the time but for his thoughts, his mutt, Ollie, and the occasional crackle of voices on the radio, he is part of a nationwide band of professional watchers who, like lighthouse keepers, stand on solitary guard between civilization and nature’s uncaring whims. More and more, he stands at another divide, too: between human jobs and automation. … The days of lookouts might be numbered. … And yet there are reasons the lookout isn’t ready to disappear into the history books. Not completely. Not yet.”


BIDEN SAGS WITH NONWHITE VOTERS 

New York Times: “President Biden is underperforming among nonwhite voters in New York Times/Siena College national polls over the last year, helping to keep the race close in a hypothetical rematch against Donald J. Trump. On average, Mr. Biden leads Mr. Trump by just 53 percent to 28 percent among registered nonwhite voters. … The results represent a marked deterioration in Mr. Biden’s support compared with 2020, when he won more than 70 percent of nonwhite voters. … With more than a year to go until the election, there’s plenty of time for Mr. Biden to re-energize his former supporters. … But the possibility that his standing will remain beneath the already depressed levels of the last presidential election should not be discounted. Democrats have lost ground among nonwhite voters in almost every election over the last decade.”

Most Americans believe Biden was involved in son’s shady business: CNN: “Most Americans say they think President Joe Biden was involved in his son’s business dealings with Ukraine and China while he served as vice president under Barack Obama, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS. A majority, 61%, say they think that Biden had at least some involvement in Hunter Biden’s business dealings, with 42% saying they think he acted illegally, and 18% saying that his actions were unethical but not illegal. Another 38% say they don’t believe Joe Biden had any involvement in his son’s business dealings during his vice presidency. Just 1% believe Biden was involved, but did not do anything wrong. A 55% majority of the public says the president has acted inappropriately regarding the investigation into Hunter Biden over potential crimes, while 44% say that he has acted appropriately.”

Dems fret as Biden age concerns grow: Washington Post: “For the second time in a week, a poll shows that three-quarters of Americans, including two-thirds of Democrats, consider President Biden too old for the office. … Biden’s age problem is clearly bigger than it once was. But more specifically, it’s a growing perceived mental-sharpness problem, and the gap between him and former president Donald Trump on such questions has also expanded. … It’s not so much that this is currently a major liability; it’s that it’s going to loom on the campaign trail. … The problem is that the margins are just so fine, and this issue presents the vast majority of voters with a historically unusual liability, however compelling they might ultimately find it, to balance against Trump’s liabilities. … For now, the issue is trending in the wrong direction for Biden.” 

Reelect slowly builds out key staff: Politico: “President Joe Biden is building up his 2024 campaign with a handful of new senior aides focused on communications, policy and his surrogate operation. The staffing moves … are the latest sign that the reelection effort is gradually ramping up. Last month, Biden’s team officially opened its headquarters in Wilmington, Del., and launched a $25 million ad campaign. … Ammar Moussa, the DNC’s national press secretary and rapid response director, will be brought on to serve as the director of rapid response for Biden’s reelection bid. María Carolina Casado, who goes by Maca and is the DNC’s director of Hispanic media, is likewise taking on a role with that title for Biden’s campaign. … Biden has run what his advisers have said is a purposefully lean campaign at this early stage of the 2024 presidential election.”

DESANTIS PAC PITCH FALLS FLAT

Politico: Of the 50 donors who gave at least $160,000 in the years leading up to [Gov. Ron DeSantis’] 2022 reelection campaign, only 16 — less than a third — provided funds to the super PAC Never Back Down. … The top 50 list includes five donors who are now financially supporting rival presidential candidates. … The inability of DeSantis to convert more of his gubernatorial donors into presidential ones is emblematic of a larger shortcoming of his current campaign. And it presents particular problems for the governor precisely because his operation has leaned so heavily on the super PAC to perform basic campaign functions. … In recent weeks, some of DeSantis’ biggest past donors have come out publicly to say they are holding back on writing checks to the super PAC.” 

‘Apoplectic’ over PAC man’s stumbles: Washington Post: “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has privately complained about a powerful operative at the center of his 2024 presidential effort, according to three people familiar with the comments, a sign of the internal drama that has complicated his struggling White House bid. DeSantis has expressed regrets over Jeff Roe’s hiring as a lead strategist at the super PAC Never Back Down, an outside group that has assumed many responsibilities in the race traditionally handled by campaigns, two of the people said. One, a DeSantis donor, heard the comments directly from the governor, this person said. DeSantis has also voiced anger over a pre-debate strategy memo from Never Back Down, which was publicly posted last month on the website of Roe’s firm, Axiom, these people said. One of them, the donor, said the governor was ‘apoplectic.’”

GOP spending tops $100 million as Iowa draws closer: NBC News: “The Republican presidential nominating fight just eclipsed $100 million in ad spending, as the GOP field burns money at a historic rate. … Former President Donald Trump’s allies have dominated in national television spending. … But Trump’s Republican rivals are mounting an effort below the surface to blunt his momentum where it matters most: in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire — and South Carolina, too, though to a much lesser extent. There’s been hardly any meaningful ad spending outside those three early-voting states. … Just looking at TV and radio ads … Republicans have spent $80.5 million through August. … Through the same point on the calendar in 2019, Democrats competing in their party’s open presidential primary had spent just $15.1 million on TV and radio ads.”

DNC diverts $1.2 million to combat Youngkin  Washington Post: “President Biden directed the Democratic National Committee this week to pour $1.2 million into Virginia legislative races to counter record-smashing fundraising by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. … The money will bring the DNC’s contributions to the Democratic Party of Virginia this year to $1.5 million — 15 times more than it invested four years ago. … The state’s two Democratic senators, Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine, have recently urged the White House to direct more DNC funding to the General Assembly contests. … While Democratic candidates as a whole have outraised Republicans so far this cycle, Youngkin aims to make up the difference with his PAC. Fueled by the governor’s prolonged presidential tease, Youngkin’s haul has eclipsed even the sums amassed by fabled national Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.” 

Lowry: Why GOP candidates can’t land punches on Trump: Politico: “His opponents can’t make the most compelling argument against Trump — namely, that for myriad, deep-seated reasons he’s poorly suited to represent the GOP and become the country’s president again. … So, the other top contenders are left with more glancing, indirect criticisms that don’t land with the same force, if they land at all. Trump’s opponents tend to say that he’s not electable, or he didn’t deliver on his promises. … This is different than saying that Trump’s poisonously stupid conduct in office and afterwards was completely unacceptable and alienated the middle of the electorate. … Republican voters have thrown a defensive shield up around the former president. … The root of the problem is that Republicans really like Trump and believe, even more than ever after the indictments, that he is being treated unfairly.”

BRIEFLY

With help from taxpayer-funded ads, Noem grinds her way into veepstakes —Politico

Former Rep. Peter Meijer nears Michigan Senate bid—The Hill

Court rejects Alabama GOP’s districting redraw, taps special master—Politico

Dems thrilled as Ohio will stick with congressional map—Cleveland Plain Dealer

Former Obama aide wins packed Rhode Island Dem House primary—AP

MAGA Maloy wins Utah GOP House primary—Axios

WITHIN EARSHOT: GROUPTHINK 

“Well, because I know I would get yelled at if we had not …”—Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows explains he got involved in the fake electors scheme to avoid being admonished by his then-boss, Donald Trump. 

And …

“Zombified and unified through gay sex…”—Putin advisor Sergei Markov explains his discovery of homosexual Ukrainian supersoldiers during an appearance on Russian state television last week. 


MAILBAG

“As a 76-year-old citizen, I agree with Mr. Stirewalt’s proposal that Mr. McConnell follow the example (of all people!) of Nancy Pelosi. Ageism (mandatory retirement) would deprive us of the presence of Bernie Sanders and Chuck Grassley, both of whom make interesting and valuable contributions. Age takes its toll on all of us at different rates. The challenge seems to be recognizing and acknowledging it. On a related note, generalizing about generations is neither helpful nor accurate. People influence change, not entire generations.”—Jim Delzell, Chicago, Illinois

You certainly make good points, Mr. Delzell! And there are certainly examples of older citizens who make important contributions. I love the story of how Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate to the Continental Congress at 70, and Thomas Jefferson, just 33 at the time, collaborated on the Declaration of Independence. It is that kind of intergenerational dynamic that so often produces new insights. But, just as our lower limits on age no doubt exclude people who might be great representatives, senators, or presidents, an upper age limit of 80 strikes me as a prudent measure. The miracles of modern medicine have made it necessary to set such a boundary, which had previously been imposed by nature. Limits on power should be undertaken advisedly and with caution, but there is no shortage of people in their middle years to render service. In a healthy republic, no one, not even George Washington himself, can be treated as indispensable. 


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the discerning Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: THE JUDGE ITO EFFECT 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media at the U.S. Capitol on June 21, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

We gave you a very tough one this week, folks. When we’re making jokes about people with health problems, finding the line between tart humor and cruelty or morbidness is very hard. For those of you who went to the dark side, know that I am ashamed of myself for how often I laughed. And to those of you who, like our winner, found a way to make a joke that singed rather than burned, thank you.

“Hang on, did you say they’re televising the Georgia trial?”—Brett Houseman, Vista, California

Winner, More Than Words Division:

“…”—Steve McCardell, Redding, Connecticut

Winner, Corn Squeezin’s Division 

“Excuse me … it’s Makers Mark for this old crow.”—Donnie Bishop, New Castle, Virginia

Winner, Voldemort Amendment Division:

“Ah, Harry Potter. The Boy Who Lived, come to die!”—Jonathan Mahlum, Orting, Washington

Winner, Life Finds a Way Division 

“The minority leader mourned the other senators and staffer who mocked his offers of specialty situational response training prior to the Tyrannosaurus Rex attack that devastated Congress.”—Eric Swenson, Winsted, Connecticut

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


NAMA-SLAY BBC: “A yoga class was mistaken for a ‘ritual mass murder’ scene after members of the public saw several people lying on the floor and reported it to police. Five police cars descended on the North Sea Observatory in Chapel St. Leonards, Lincolnshire,[England] on Wednesday night. Yoga teacher Millie Laws said she thought reports of her being a ‘mass murderer’ were a ‘joke at first.’ … The 22-year-old teacher said she was teaching seven students at the Seascape Cafe, which is inside the building, when she saw two dog walkers peering closely through the glass window during the Shavasana or relaxation stage of the class. ‘They’re [students] laying down with blankets over them, their eyes are closed. It’s very dark in there. I just had candles and little tea lights lit the whole room, and I was just walking around playing my drum. I had a nice floaty top on with large bell sleeves,’ she said.”

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. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

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.