Monday, July 15, 2024

The decision by Mike Pence to end his presidential campaign on Saturday was an acknowledgment of the inevitable. He was struggling to raise funds, gain support from his party’s base, and handle the challenges posed by Donald J. Trump, who had brought him into the national spotlight. However, the root cause of his campaign’s failure and the potential decline of his political career can be traced back to 2016 when Pence accepted Trump’s offer to be his running mate.

“He completely misjudged the situation,” said Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical clergyman and former leader of the anti-abortion movement who provided counsel to Pence two decades ago but later turned against him because of his association with Trump. “This turned out to be disastrous for his political career.”

Before Trump chose Pence as his running mate, the two men were not particularly close and had significant differences. Pence, a Christian evangelical who grew up in rural Indiana and served as the state’s governor, had endorsed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of Trump’s primary opponents. Pence was also uncomfortable with Trump’s nonconventional methods and charismatic personality, as he was more accustomed to a traditional political career.

However, Pence faced a challenging re-election campaign as Indiana’s governor, narrowly defeating a Democratic opponent in 2012. He was enticed by the opportunity to secure a national role either as vice president or as a strong candidate for the presidency in 2020 if Trump were to lose to Hillary Clinton, as indicated by polling at the time. After careful consideration, consulting with his wife Karen, political advisors, friends, and engaging in prayer, Pence accepted Trump’s offer.

By Saturday morning in Las Vegas, Pence almost certainly regretted the deal as a former vice president bowed out of the race for president without even reaching the Iowa caucuses. He never learned how to manage his relationship with Trump or navigate the stark cultural and personal differences between himself and the flashy New Yorker who defied the traditional rules of politics that guided Pence throughout his career.

After over a decade in Congress, one term as governor, and a vice presidency, Pence, now 64, appears to be entering the most challenging period of his public life since being elected to Congress in 2001. His decision to break with Trump after the January 6th Capitol breach and challenge him for the 2024 nomination angered the former president and alienated the current Trump supporters who define the party. However, Pence’s four years of loyalty to Trump as his vice president made it impossible for him to win over voters ready to move on from the Trump era.

Pence’s decision to align himself with Trump came in June 2016 when Steve Hilbert, an Indiana insurance industry executive connected to both men, asked if he would consider joining Trump. Pence was open to the idea as he was in the midst of recovering from the backlash caused by signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This act allowed businesses, such as Christian establishments, to deny services to same-sex couples, sparking a nationwide outcry and threatening his political future.

Over the following year, Pence focused on state issues like education and taxes, attempting to put the religious freedom bill behind him as he prepared for re-election. However, his chances were questionable, contingent on the overall outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Pence never publicly shared any reservations about joining Trump but instead sent a message expressing his willingness to serve. He remained fully committed to his re-election campaign while also considering the potential benefits of partnering with Trump.

Several factors made the offer tempting for Pence. He had always been open about his aspirations to run for president in the future and believed that a campaign with Trump would position him well for future opportunities, whether Trump won or lost. Additionally, Republicans concerned about Trump, particularly regarding his attention to evangelical issues, encouraged Pence to take on the role of a guide and provide credibility within the party.

Today, almost eight years later, Pence’s short-lived campaign serves as a testament to the unforeseen consequences of his decision. Despite kind words from former rivals after dropping out, Pence’s own future is uncertain. Reverend Schenck, who had prayed and studied scriptures with Pence, expressed disappointment in Pence aligning himself with someone he viewed as the complete opposite of the moral leader they had discussed. “There must have come a point where Mike either thought, ‘I can overcome Donald Trump’ or ‘I can rise above his immorality,'” Schenck said. “He had to make too many compromises and adjustments, which may have been detrimental to his leadership.”

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