March 18, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pence refuses to endorse his old running mate. That’s a BFD

A huge signal to swing voters.

Courtesy of Fox, via screenshot.
Courtesy of Fox, via screenshot.

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On Friday, former Vice President Mike Pence said he would not endorse Donald Trump this year. The reaction to the news among liberals and Democrats seemed to range from indifference to skepticism. Some said it didn’t matter. Others said Pence would vote for Trump anyway. Both reactions are wrong. His refusal to endorse Trump is a BFD.

First, during his interview on Fox, Pence would not reveal who he’d be voting for. To be sure, he said he’d never vote for Joe Biden. But that’s not the same as saying he’d vote for Trump. Moreover, even if he did vote for Trump, he’d be doing it in private. Those were his words. Politically speaking, a private vote for Trump means very little. 

Second, he said, “it should come as no surprise that I will not be endorsing Donald Trump this year.” Don’t buy it. No one did more to ensure there was no daylight between himself and Trump than Pence did. He even said, during one of those Republican primary debates that no one watched, that he’d support Trump as the party’s nominee if he were a convicted criminal. By saying “it should come as no surprise …,” Pence is trying to make it seem like his choice is totally normal. If the liberal and Democratic reaction to it is any indication, he succeeded. 

It’s not normal. This is a former vice president we’re talking about. As Jonathan V. Last wrote this morning: “No American vice president has ever said that his former boss is unfit to serve. It is the most devastating possible observation from the most credible source in existence. Pence’s refusal to endorse Trump should be part of the context of every single story about this campaign.” During his brief campaign, Pence’s future depended on Trump. Afterward, it did, too. In refusing to endorse him, Pence has written his political obituary.

Pence did more than refuse to endorse Trump. He refused to endorse his party. Trump isn’t the only one who’s pursuing and articulating an agenda at odds with a conservative agenda. So are the Republicans.

Perhaps Pence had concluded, before publicly refusing to endorse Trump on Friday, that his obituary had already been written. On January 6, 2021, he privileged his oath to the Constitution over his loyalty to Trump. That closed off whatever space remained for him among Trump’s followers. On January 6, he didn’t leave Trump. Trump left him. The insurrectionists chanted “hang Mike Pence.” They erected a gallows outside. Maybe it’s taken Pence this long to figure that out.

Whatever the case, I’m reminded of the idea that swing voters are extinct, and as such, Pence’s refusal to endorse means nothing. This idea is daily reinforced by Trump himself, who acts like no one matters outside his base – to such a degree that he’s taken to calling people convicted of sacking and looting the Capitol “hostages” or “patriots.” 

But the more Trump acts like swing voters don’t exist, the more swing voters he creates. We know this from the number of Republicans who voted for Nikki Haley and say they’ll never vote for Trump. We know this from the number of times Joe Biden’s reelection campaign has reached out to disaffected Republicans. There were already a lot of these voters before the J6 insurrection. Now there’s only more.

His reasons for refusing to endorse are rooted in the J6 insurrection, but there’s more to it, Pence said. Trump has walked back from his previous commitment to reducing the national debt, he said. He has walked back from his previous commitment to the “sanctity of life,” he said. He has reversed himself on his previous “get-tough-on-China” position, he said. Pence also implied that Trump is failing with respect to “limited government” and the Constitution; a “strong national defense”; American leadership in the world; and “traditional values.”

“Donald Trump is pursuing and articulating an agenda that is at odds with the conservative agenda that we governed on during our four years,” Pence told Fox host Martha MacCallum, “and that is why I cannot in good conscience endorse Donald Trump in this campaign.”

Conservatism is a higher-order thing that matters to Mike Pence (or at least it does now, now that his career is over). It matters to a lot of people, especially Americans who think of themselves as being above politics, which is to say, especially to swing voters. And a higher-order thing matters for another reason: it makes all those Republican congresspeople who have endorsed Trump look like chumps. 

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To endorse Donald Trump is to surrender whatever principles and convictions you might have, because principles and convictions compete for loyalty to Donald Trump. If a Republican chooses the Constitution over him, as Pence did, that’s it. They’re done. So Pence did more than refuse to endorse Trump. He refused to endorse his party. Trump isn’t the only one who’s pursuing and articulating an agenda at odds with a conservative agenda. So are the Republicans.

I don’t expect Pence to affect Trump’s supporters. They were rarely Pence’s idea of conservative anyway. (They’re happy to see the GOP use the government to enforce their idea of a “perfect society.”) Ditto for those on a growing list of former Trump administration officials who are refusing to endorse him or becoming vocal critics. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. None of this will make a difference. 

But that’s not who I’m thinking about. Swing voters exist, and the more Donald Trump operates outside normal democratic politics and the regular constitutional order, the more swing voters there are going to be. Lots of them have already found satisfactory reasons to vote for Biden (abortion, for instance). For those who can’t bring themselves to do that, Pence is modeling an alternative. Don’t vote for Trump. He’s unfit. But if you can’t vote for Biden, well, it’s OK if you stay home. 

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

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