Former Vice President Mike Pence has gone off the Trump reservation and may find it hard getting back.
During a speech at the Mecca of establishment Republicanism, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Pence said he will “always be proud” of his role in certifying the election of Joe Biden. That remark appears to be tailor-made to pick a fight with the notoriously thin-skinned Trump, who is always looking for a political scrap.
Pence went even further when he said, without naming Trump, “Truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” Pence was referring to Trump’s statement that the former president was “disappointed” that Pence “didn’t send it back to the legislatures.”
“The Constitution affords the vice president no authority to reject or return electoral votes submitted to the Congress by the states,” said Pence.
Pence appeared to burn his bridges with Trump and his supporters.
“Now, I understand the disappointment many feel about the last election,” he said. “I can relate. I was on the ballot. But you know, there’s more at stake than our party and our political fortunes in this moment. If we lose faith in the Constitution, we won’t just lose elections — we’ll lose our country.”
Related: Trump: ‘I Have Not Conceded’ 2020 Election
But Pence didn’t make a total break with Trump and his supporters.
In a wide-ranging speech, Pence urged Republicans to continue the policies of former president Donald Trump alongside more traditional conservative priorities. Pence said that “under President Trump’s leadership we were able to achieve things Republicans have been talking about since the days of Barry Goldwater.”
Pence praised Trump’s focus on border security, calling for the country to continue building a wall on the southern border, and said that the “Trump–Pence administration” was the first to see “Communist China for what it was — not a partner engaged in good-faith competition, but a strategic competitor.”
Would Trumpism and Trumpenomics work without Trump? Pence wants to find out.
It was the only clear break Pence made from the President he served loyally for four years — and whose mantle he’d like to take up for himself in the 2024 presidential race. That goal is complicated by the open possibility Trump could run again himself, and the blame that Trump’s most loyal supporters ascribe to Pence for failing to overturn the election.
Pence’s task is to distinguish himself from Trump when necessary while still aligning himself with the Trump administration achievements that are most popular with the Republican base. He began that effort at a speech in South Carolina in April, which were his first public remarks since leaving the vice presidency. Pence isn’t the only potential 2024 contender navigating around Trump’s legacy. Nikki Haley, who criticized Trump after January 6, addressed the party faithful in Iowa on Thursday night, repeatedly sharing warm anecdotes about how she’d collaborated with him as the ambassador to the UN.
This speech was Pence’s Rubicon. He appears committed to running whether Trump does or not. He’s risking an open break with Trump. He may even be counting on it.
He is positioning himself to be the establishment candidate while trying to keep one foot in Trump country. It’s a tricky business, and he’s likely going to have to choose whose side he’s on before too long.
That will prove difficult — especially if Trump runs. The former president has been successfully muzzled but once he announces a run for president, the media will have to pay attention to him. They have no choice. It won’t matter if they damn him from dawn to sunset. Trump’s words will be heard. And since Trump supporters don’t believe anything in most media anyway, his words are all they’ll hear.
Trump’s ideas have plenty of currency. But can Donald Trump still rouse the masses to join him in one last fight?