Can Pence head to the moderate center?

By Brian Howey

Vice President Mike Pence journeyed back home to Indiana recently to make his pitch for President Trump’s emerging tax reform plan.

“The good news is the Senate’s close to moving forward with legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare as we speak,” Pence told a crowd in Anderson in his old congressional district. “President Trump and I firmly believe that the Graham-Cassidy bill is the right bill at the right time to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

But there was a problem. Simultaneously U.S. Sen. John McCain announced he couldn’t support the plan, saying, “I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham-Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried.” It was the death knell.

If there’s a déjà vu feel to this, you only have to go back to July when Pence spent hours just off the Senate floor twisting McCain’s arm to support another Senate Obamacare repeal/replace plan. McCain did the same thing, citing no hearings, no amendments, and tens of millions losing coverage. Zap!

The vice president ardently believes that most Americans hate Obamacare — and many do — but a CBS Poll on Graham/Cassidy showed 20 percent support, with only 18 percent of independents and just 46 percent of Republicans. Most Americans realized that Graham/Cassidy, much like the House bill that passed last spring, was simply a “just do something” bill aimed at pleasing restless campaign donors. On the House bill, President Trump celebrated passage with Bud Lights in the Rose Garden, then pronounced it “mean.”

Three days after Pence appeared in Anderson, the only Senate hearing on Graham/Cassidy took place and the optics were severe: Capitol Hill police arresting and dragging away protesters in wheelchairs. If you missed these stunning images, you’ll see them in 2018 campaign TV and internet ads.

Pence’s background is illustrative of his emerging dilemma. As a congressman for a dozen years, he never forged a significant piece of legislation with a Democrat co-sponsor. In fact, he never passed one of his bills into law. He used his House seat to quickly climb into Republican conference leadership where he became a rhetorical warrior, citing the three-legged stool most politically aware Hoosiers can cite from memory: “I’m a Christian, conservative and Republican in that order.”

As governor, Pence had two towering Republican super majorities in the General Assembly. He would meet with Democrats, but he didn’t really need their votes.

So 2017 finds Pence scraping up with the reality of actually getting things done. As his hero, President Ronald Reagan, realized, you have to reach out to Democrats on the major stuff. Pence frequently joined the Senate Republican Tuesday luncheon, but he didn’t have enough mojo to pull in the entire caucus. He has virtually no relationships or heft with Democrats that Trump will need for future deals on tax reform and infrastructure. Democratic Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts quoted Trump after a meeting last week: “You get a better deal if it’s bipartisan.”

Ya think? It took him nine months to realize that. Preparing to depart to Indianapolis Wednesday to push his tax reforms, Trump told reporters, “I will negotiate with Democrats to see if I can get a deal.”

Trump is clearly headed in that direction. He is openly feuding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan, both Pence allies, and former aide Steve Bannon has declared a “revolution” against the GOP establishment of which Pence is a most conspicuous member. On Monday, Pence was in Alabama campaigning for a Senate race loser, Luther Strange, while Bannon stumped for Roy Moore, who won the GOP primary the next day.

Is this a lesson Pence is preparing to learn? It better be. While Pence has proved to be an ultra-loyal Trumper, spraying his boss in glowing accolades even in the most embarrassing moments, Trump has repeatedly proven that loyalty is a one-way street. Just ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Or jet-setting HHS Sec. Tom Price, who got a “we’ll see” vote of confidence from Trump just before he departed for Indianapolis. The cautionary tale for Trump allies is not to get between him and the bus.

Trump is entering an era when moderation and Democratic alliances will be crucial. This clashes with two spokes on the Pence stool — the conservative and Republican legs. Democrats see a sunny face and good humor that cloaks a legendary ideologue.

If Trump truly moves to the moderate center, seeking support from Democrats, can Pence change his stripes, start attending Democrat luncheons, build relationships with the Chuck and Nancy crowd? Two thoughts emerge: He’d better, and I have my doubts.

All of this fuels a working hypothesis here and in other quarters that Trump is not a conservative or even a Republican. He’s the first independent president, achieving a hostile takeover of the GOP. He accomplished something Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, John Anderson and Ross Perot could only dream about. Don’t be surprised if he runs for reelection as an independent.

If Pence somehow ends up under the Greyhound Firestones, we could be witnessing the type of cleaving that found Teddy Roosevelt clashing with his former veep William Howard Taft in the 1912 election.

Mike Pence, the bipartisan warrior, who’s in a good mood about it? We’ll see.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at Send comments to [email protected].