July 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Democracy is more important than Mike Pence

If people want to call him a hero, let them.

Pence

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Liberals and progressives have been quietly complaining about the J6 committee’s treatment of Mike Pence, who, as you know, is a central figure in the former president’s attempted takeover of America.

The chief beef appears to be that the more the committee’s Democrats praise the former vice president for “merely doing his job,” the more the Democrats risk making him out to be a hero. 

The lowest bar?
Knowing of his presidential ambitions, they fear the committee is helping Pence seem reasonable, moderate and patriotic, when in fact he’s only slightly worse than Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the J6 committee’s vice chair. For both of them, an insurrection would probably be okie-dokie as long as it were nice and legal.

The griping got louder after the most recent hearing by the J6 committee. In addition to presenting parts of Pat Cipollone’s deposition to further its case against Trump, it gave space to the former White House counsel’s administration for Mike Pence. 

Democracy is on a knife’s edge. Many people have lost trust in it. Let’s avoid doing anything that can encourage more pessimism of the democratic faith. Liberals and progressives – but especially liberals – should not risk the appearance of believing that nothing matters.

He said Pence deserved the presidential Medal of Freedom. “I think the vice president did the right thing. I think he did the courageous thing. I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Pence.”

Twitter lit up. The consensus among liberals and progressives appeared to be this: He doesn’t deserve a medal for merely doing his job. MSNBC’s Ari Melber, an attorney himself, said: “A Trump lawyer says Mike Pence should get the ‘medal of freedom’ for not trying to stage an illegal coup on January 6. Can the bar get any lower?”

Do not cross
Melber is wrong. The bar is high. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the violence, injury and death that characterized the J6 insurgency.

Pence was in real danger. We know that he knew that he was. We know that he was under enormous political pressure. We know that Trump summoned paramilitaries to intimidate and terrorize him. 

Why would we ignore that? 

We should instead recognize that there is a line that no elected official should ever cross. That line is the oath by which every elected official vows to preserve, protect and defend the US Constitution. 

Pence did not cross that line. 

We should recognize that fact. 

We should also recognize that by refusing to recognize that Mike Pence did not cross that line, we are fomenting rank cynicism. 


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We are in effect saying that the guardrails of democracy do not matter as much as we say they do – that the difference between loyalty and treason is conditional and that honoring your oath is patriotism only if done for reasons whose rightness we define.

Bullshit.

Democracy is on a knife’s edge. Many people have lost trust in it. Let’s avoid doing anything that can encourage more pessimism of the democratic faith. Liberals and progressives – but especially liberals – should not risk the appearance of believing that nothing matters.

“Real heroes and patriots”
Consider Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin’s example. 

During an April interview at Georgetown University, in which he explained “the three rings of sedition” that structured the J6 insurrection, he spared a few (mostly) kind words for Pence. 

“For four years, Mike Pence demonstrated nothing other than invertebrate sycophancy and obsequiousness to Donald Trump,” Raskin said. “On that day, he lived up to his oath of office. 

“He was a constitutional patriot. They were chanting – I heard them chanting – ‘hang Mike Pence, hang Mike Pence.’ They meant it.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Raskin suggested that it doesn’t matter why some Republicans – in the vice president’s office, in state elections offices and the Justice Department – did not cross the line from loyalty to the Constitution to loyalty to a criminal president. 

What matters is that they didn’t.

“There are real heroes and patriots in this story,” he said. “The first thing [Trump and his inner circle] did after all of the court cases flopped was to try to get GOP legislative leaders simply to nullify the popular vote and cast their electoral college votes for Trump. 

“They refused for different reasons. Some thought it was politically toxic – it was too hot. Others thought it was the right thing to do.”

Either way, they didn’t cross the line.


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In times such as these, in which democracy continues drifting into a sea of authoritarian violence, they were “real heroes and patriots.”

Lying by omission
Was Mike Pence “merely doing his job”?

Again, bullshit.

Unless we’re prepared to say that the J6 insurrection wasn’t so bad as to terrify everyone inside the US Capitol – unless we are prepared to say that the J6 insurrection wasn’t really an insurrection – no one can say with a straight face that Mike Pence was “merely doing his job.”

Like everyone else in that building, Pence was working under extreme and life-threatening conditions that were unheard of on account of no sitting president in the history of the United States has ever mounted a violent attack on the seat of the US government.

Saying that he was “merely doing his job,” or that doing his job is the lowest of low bars, is lying by omission – the omission of the extreme and life-threatening conditions that were unheard of in this country.

It took guts
Some will say that doing the right for the right reasons takes courage, but doing the right thing for the wrong reasons does not. 

More bullshit.

When you act for virtuous reasons, you have decided that the consequences of not acting are worse than the ones for acting. That’s a trade-off, a morally good trade-off, but a trade-off nevertheless.

Mike Pence did not make a trade-off. For this reason, one could argue that his deliberate choice to stay inside the guardrails of democracy took more courage than acting for virtuous reasons.

Remember, he wants to be president someday. (He won’t be, but let’s roll with it.) He will need the former president’s base, especially the Christian nationalists. Instead of a trade-off, one with clear costs and benefits, he made a calculation whose outcome is much murkier.

He calculated that it’s better to honor his oath of office now, look like a “constitutional patriot” and then parlay those factors into his predicted run for president. Calculations are risks. Perhaps he’s now a permanent party pariah. But these are risks he decided to make.

You can say that’s not admirable. You can say that’s not worthy of honors like the medal of freedom. You can say that following career incentives and self-interest is hardly heroic. I happen to agree.

But you can’t say it didn’t take guts.

But you can’t disparage the plain fact that the republic is still standing because the former vice president either did the right thing for the right reasons or did the right thing for the wrong reasons. 

I’m good either way. 

What’s really important
The former vice president is not as important as the fact that ambitious power-hungry politicians can still find reasons to stay inside the guardrails of democracy – the fact that they can still pursue their goals and desires while never crossing over into treason. 

Pence isn’t as important as liberals and progressives recognizing that achievement, normalizing it and demanding that others follow suit.

If people want to call him a hero, let them.

Democracy is more important.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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