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Mike Pence and the Republican Future

Column: The former vice president lays out the stakes for 2024

Mike Pence speaks at the Heritage Foundation, Oct. 19, 2022 (Getty Images)
• October 21, 2022 5:00 am

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The plan was for Mike Pence to announce his "Freedom Agenda" in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in late July. But the weather had other ideas. Summer thunderstorms forced Pence to cancel. The talk was rescheduled for, and delivered on, October 19. Coming three weeks before the midterm election, with GOP candidates gaining strength in polls, the former vice president’s remarks had a force and significance that they might have lacked three months ago. Pence grasped the meaning of the moment. "Maybe it’s what we call in my house ‘God’s timing,’" he told the audience.

And God’s timing is good. Pence’s speech deserves a listen not just for its content but for its framing. As Republicans march toward victory in November, Pence laid out the stakes for his party next year and beyond. Conservatism, he suggested, has reached an impasse. Will the Right continue to promote freedom, constitutionalism, and American leadership abroad? Or will it take off in a different direction, toward centralized authority, arbitrary power, and global retrenchment?

Pence doesn’t believe the future of the Right is an either/or question. He said that the Trump administration—or, as Pence likes to say, the "Trump-Pence administration"—was a synthesis between Reagan conservatism and Trump populism. He pointed to immigration, trade, and China as places where Trump populism modified Reagan conservatism in ways that brought the priorities of Republican officials into alignment with the sentiments of the Republican base. Pence welcomed these changes. But he also cautioned that conservatism should not be abandoned at the first sign of populist discontent. "We need to chart a course that doesn’t veer off too far in either direction," he said. He warned conservatives not to fall for "the siren song of unprincipled populism" that could lead them to abandon longstanding values such as limited government, free enterprise, and the rule of law. And he cast his lot with the Reagan conservative vision of America as the shining city on the hill.

Pence remains an enemy of big government. He urged a hypothetical Republican Congress to stop and reverse President Joe Biden’s spending, and to use the "power of the purse" to force the administration to secure the southern border. His "Freedom Agenda" puts culture first, emphasizing the pro-life cause, defending women’s sports from transgenderism, and banning Critical Race Theory from America’s classrooms. Economics comes next, with Pence calling for the extension of the Trump tax cuts, universal school choice, and plentiful oil and gas. In this section of the speech, Pence contrasted his vision with the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush. He recalled that when he was a congressman, he opposed many of Bush’s initiatives. "End the federal government’s role in education," Pence declared.

Foreign policy is where Pence diverges the most from the populist Right. He was outspoken in his support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s unprovoked and inhumane invasion. Recalling a trip he took to the battlefront last March, Pence said that America should continue to sanction Russia and to send weapons and aid to the Ukrainians. "There can be no room in the conservative movement for apologists for Putin," he said. "There is only room in this movement for champions of freedom."

Pence’s admonition was necessary. There is reportedly a battle taking place between advisers to Donald Trump over the former president’s stance on Ukraine. The argument has grown only more heated as Ukraine rolls back Russian forces. Trump recently called for a ceasefire and volunteered to negotiate it himself. Republican senatorial candidates such as J.D. Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona have criticized America’s role in the war. Trump populists—including the Heritage Foundation's new president—have welcomed former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii), an apologist for Vladimir Putin and his vassal Bashar al-Assad, into the ranks of the New Right. And Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), likely the next speaker of the House and no friend of the Russian autocrat, recently said that a GOP Congress would not provide a blank check for Ukraine.

The war has crystallized the divide on the American Right. Reagan conservatives see Volodymyr Zelensky as a hero who is asserting his nation’s sovereignty and freedom against a bloodthirsty despot. Many—not all—Trump populists see the Ukrainian president as a bullying stand-in for a corrupt and decadent network of globalist elites. Pence rejects this view. "I know that there is a rising chorus in our party, including some new voices in our movement, who would have us disengage with the wider world and abandon the traditional values at the heart of our movement," Pence said. "But appeasement has never worked—ever—in history. And now more than ever, we need a conservative movement committed to America’s role as leader of the free world and as a vanguard of American values."

Where the Right comes down on Ukraine will shape its character in both the foreign and domestic spheres. If the GOP abandons Ukraine, it will undermine the NATO alliance, damage American credibility with our allies and partners, and weaken America’s position in the world. A GOP that turns away from Europe is also likely to turn away from the Pacific—no matter how much you might hear that Ukraine distracts America from China’s threat to Taiwan. Succumbing to the whims of a capricious tyrant will erode the moral foundations of a movement whose core values are freedom and dignity for all. That is why Pence’s speech matters.

Pence’s text was about 2022, but his subtext was 2024. He is moving toward a presidential campaign no matter what his former boss decides to do. Since leaving office, he’s traveled the country, built out his political operation, and consulted with former colleagues and outside experts to assemble the policy agenda he described at Heritage. His book, So Help Me God, will be released next month. This week, when asked if he will support Donald Trump next cycle, Pence replied, "Well, there might be somebody else I’d prefer more."

Neither Trump nor his supporters have forgiven Pence for following the law and refusing to throw out Electoral College results on January 6, 2021. He is far behind both Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis in polls for the GOP nomination. His favorability rating among self-identified Republicans has taken a hit. And he is not exactly the world’s most electric speaker. The odds are against him.

Pence deserves our gratitude. Not only because he kept his oath to the Constitution, but also because he reminded the Right that a synthesis of conservatism and populism is possible. He understands that how we approach the world reflects how we behave at home. The heart of conservatism—the principles and institutions of the American Founding—has not stopped beating yet. "Conservatives at this moment should rededicate ourselves to defend the principles at the heart of our republic," Pence said. "Because if we don’t, no one will."