Would We Be Better Off With a President Pence Right Now?
Imagine our response to the pandemic and the protests if Donald Trump had been removed from office.
What would a President Pence do?
It's a question no one is asking, so I guess it falls to me.
In January 2020 it was almost as if God, the universe, or our Lizard People overlords were giving the Republicans one last chance to separate their fate from Trump’s. The Higher Power couldn’t actually tell the GOP, “If you don't choose wisely, you'll be stuck with him during a time of trials, tribulations, and even a plague.” But it's not like they weren’t warned that the president would one day be tested beyond his abilities. Prophets don’t predict, they warn. And such warnings have been thick in the air for a very long time.
But few Republicans heeded, and a complaisance just shy of Stockholm syndrome finally set in. After all, the economy was humming, the normal rules of politics had not applied to this president for so long, and the base was so invested in Trump, best to keep your head down. Sodom and Gomorrah were fun towns while they lasted, too.
Like a TV drama that needs to foreshadow the plot twists of the next season, the plague actually started as a subplot of the impeachment drama. Tom Cotton left the Senate trial at one point to lobby the White House to take the strange illness plaguing the Chinese city of Wuhan seriously. It all seems so foreordained in hindsight. Isn't that always the way?
Of course, one might argue that the president shouldn’t have been removed from office because he wasn’t guilty. But few Republicans, outside the president and his coterie, actually took this position. Most hid behind the claim that the prosecution hadn’t made its case, even as the Senate moved to block the prosecution from fully making its case. A handful of senators, led by Lamar Alexander, conceded that Trump did abuse his power by pressuring Ukraine to muddy up Joe Biden, but that his missteps weren’t worth impeaching him over. As Marco Rubio put it, “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office.”
Fair enough. But here we are. And that raises the question: Would we be better off today without President Trump? Those who claimed, quite angrily that impeachment would have overturned an election always ignored the fact that the 12th Amendment prevents that. Removal would have delivered a President Pence, not a President Clinton.
It's self-evident that Pence would have handled the pandemic better. His stewardship of the White House coronavirus task force was marked by quiet, assured and reassuring, professionalism. If he hawked hydroxychloroquine or bleach as potential miracle cures, I missed it.
It is true, of course, that whenever given the opportunity to put distance between himself and the president, Pence never does. It feels to me, though, that this is because he is in hostage mode, stoically reciting into the camera whatever his captor has demanded he say. I always look for signs that he is trying to blink the Morse code for “TORTURE” into the cameras, but so far I haven’t seen it.
With Pence as president, it's unlikely the White House would have launched the Battle of Lafayette Park, nor would Pence have floated conspiracy theories about Joe Scarborough being a murderer or a 75-year-old Buffalo man being an Antifa provocateur. More broadly, the policies that Trump enablers claim are the benefits that come with the transactional costs of tolerating—or even celebrating—the self-destructive drama of his presidency would disappear.
While the country would be in better shape, it’s hard to know if the GOP would be, at least in the short term. On one hand, post-impeachment Pence surely would have gotten the rally-around-the-leader bump that Trump frittered away (and that nearly all state governors are still enjoying).
On the other hand, Trump's rage-tweeting from his Mar-a-Lago Elba certainly would have created problems for the Republican senators who voted to convict. But the contrast between the staid President Pence and his predecessor might actually help Pence attract the Republican-friendly voters Trump has scared away.
More importantly, the same “binary choice” logic constantly used to justify support for Trump would apply. Do you want to give the Democrats total control of government or do you want to hold your nose and vote for the lesser evil?
Obviously, it's all spilled milk now. But it's a useful mental exercise nonetheless. Because if the suggestion that we would be better off had the Republicans removed Trump from office enrages you—beyond your pet theories of the impeachment case against him—it might indicate your support of Trump is less transactional than you like to claim.
Photograph of Mike Pence in the Rose Garden by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.