The 2008 presidential campaign is actively under way, and while some winnowing has occurred, the field remains as open as it is crowded. Odds at the moment favor Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to win the Republican nomination, yet odds change every day. From "early presidential frontrunner" to "outgoing junior senator," Sen. George Allen (Va.) can tell you better than any Las Vegas bookie.
The field is open not merely because it lacks a presumptive nominee such as a sitting president or vice-president, but because it lacks a Reagan Republican who can unite the right’s major factions and carry the party on to victory in the general election. Now is the time to call upon an effective champion of conservative ideas and values. It is time for Rep. Mike Pence (R.-Ind.) to run for the presidency of the United States.
The Right Choice
While many eagerly claim the Reagan mantle, few compare quite like the outgoing chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Ultimately the optimist, Pence exudes a constant hope tempered by appropriate seriousness. His character is grounded in sincere Christian faith, a fact he neither disavows nor exploits. Like many politicians he has a way with words. Unlike many, you can believe every one of them.
With degrees in history and law and a résumé that includes being president of a regional think tank, Pence brings serious academic heft to the table, without resembling an academic. His unwavering conviction to principle has as much to do with moral fortitude as with a thoroughly developed and tested intellectual formation, which should enthuse conservatives after seeing so many Republicans "go native" once they entered the profligate confines of Washington, D.C. As one might then expect, nothing separates Pence from the rest of his crowd like than his actual record in office.
Preparing to enter his fourth term, Pence, 47, has established himself as Congress’s foremost defender of the freedom that survives only when the federal government functions within its constitutional parameters. That has often meant clashing with party leadership and a president who disdain the thought of limited government or any kind of fiscal responsibility, though the representative from eastern Indiana has always honored the letter and spirit of Reagan’s famous eleventh commandment.
In 2001 President Bush, Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and others proposed a sweeping education bill that increased federal Department of Education spending by more than 50% and stripped away local control of schools. Conservatives who objected to the No Child Left Behind Act were told to go along to get along, and appreciate the fact that it (allegedly) inched the camel’s nose under the tent when it came to school choice. Having once campaigned on eliminating the federal Department of Education in favor state and local control, Pence and his allies steadfastly opposed NCLB as an intrusive boondoggle that had no business becoming law.
Two years later Pence spearheaded conservative opposition to the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the first major new entitlement since President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. That collectivist plan also passed, but only after former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.) and his leadership team staged the longest floor vote in history to twist and cajole their way to the narrowest of passages.
Pence and the Republican Study Committee scored an important victory last year with Operation Offset, successfully cutting wasteful government spending in the disastrous wake of Hurricane Katrina. The move was classic Pence, who has long promoted budget process reform, and who helped passed the first true budget-cutting bill that same year.
His stock on the rise, Pence entered last month’s Republican leadership elections bidding to serve as minority leader in the next Congress, but was defeated by Rep. John Boehner (R.-Ohio). Dispiriting as it was to the party’s already shell-shocked base, it was hardly stunning that the establishment responsible for compassionate conservatism, Jack Abramoff and minority status in two houses of Congress didn’t view the fresh face as "leadership" material. Several weeks later, Pence earned a modest but important victory as Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R.-Tex.) prevailed in the RSC elections with Pence’s backing.
A Sensible Proposition
As the first presidential election in more than half a century in which neither party has fielded a president or vice-president, 2008 is a year in which anything could happen. If current favorites John McCain and Hillary Clinton both win their party’s nominations, it would be the first time since President John F. Kennedy that a senator would be elected, and the first time since at least the 19th century that two senators duel for the presidency.
A continued look at history reveals that a successful bid by a House member would be unusual, but not unprecedented. James Garfield was elected president after his service in the House, and no less than Abraham Lincoln accomplished the feat, though he did run unsuccessfully for Senate before moving to Pennsylvania Avenue. In 2004, then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt’s (D.-Mo.) eventual loss in the primary was due not to his station as congressman, but declining clout of organized labor and other factors.
While Pence has yet to offer any public indication that he is weighing a run, banter in his district back home suggests he might consider testing the waters in at least one early primary state. His potential campaign has received increasing attention from political prognosticators and energetic backing from a grassroots draft movement. A strong, consistent record on economic and social issues could earn him the trust of a restive base while renewing and strengthening the bonds of trust between the libertarian and evangelical wings of the party. As such, he would enter a primary calendar front-loaded with states like South Carolina and New Hampshire with a naturally solid footing from which to compete.
When communicated properly, conservatism wins with the American people. Substance and style make this cheerful conservative from the heartland the perfect candidate to carry a revitalized message of limited government and traditional values to the nation’s electorate. Youthful and imminently likeable, he comes complete with a beautiful young family and sparkling past. Pence would keep the South uniformly Republican, make up for the party’s recent slippage in the West, hold his own in the Rust Belt and potentially flip places like New Hampshire back to the GOP ledger.
A review of the early favorites quickly reveals serious shortcomings as a potential president, and political liabilities as a candidate. Each has contributed in great ways to the country, a fact to keep in mind in any examination of their weaknesses.
McCain will be 72 years old at election time, and along with questions about his age, there could be ugly, unfair questions asked in false earnest about the effects of his time as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. There will be ugly, quite fair questions about his attack on the 1st Amendment through so-called Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, his vote against the first Bush tax cuts and his lax approach to border security, among others. Although it was some time ago, his first marriage ended in adultery and divorce.
The question of whether a Mormon can win the presidency still lingers for Romney, but that is not his only problem. He could very likely emerge as the John Kerry of the GOP primary, simultaneously defined as liberal and a flip-flopper. He has taken multiple, conflicting positions on important cultural issues such as abortion, marriage and gun rights, which will cost him dearly not only in the primary but in the general.
During the midterms Rudy Giuliani drew crowds at campaign events in Middle America, but it’s uncertain the same celebrity will persuade primary voters to pull the lever for a pro-abortion candidate more friendly to gay rights than gun rights; his multiple divorces and infidelities aren’t going to score him any points either. Those asserting Rudy could be a map-changer for the GOP display a kind of oxymoronic clairvoyance. He would win the South but with reduced margins, do reasonably well in the Midwest and Upper Midwest and perhaps pick off one or two Upper Coastal or New England states, with an opponent like Bill Richardson (D.-N.M.)—governor of a Western red state, Hispanic, with foreign policy bona fides – carving whole swaths through the Southwest, the Deep South and Appalachia Country and putting the libertarian-leaning but Hispanic-population increasing Rocky Mountain West up for grabs.
Pence has four obstacles to clear on his way to earning the nomination and winning the general. More precisely, there are four things he needs to become president: name recognition, campaign cash, a high-powered staff with national experience and signature legislation he can hang his hat on.
To beltway insiders and the partisan class, Pence is recognized as a rising star and a force on the Hill, yet he remains unknown to much of the American public. To remedy this, he must make noises within the next several months indicating he is open to considering a bid. He should publish a book during the next year outlining his vision for America’s future, overlaid against the backdrop of his own autobiography. Finally, the first member of Congress to launch his own blog must continue to aggressively court new and old media alike.
He must signal to major donors that he is at least considering a run, so that the dollars that might come his way do not flow elsewhere. Fiscally conservative, Wall Street Journal-type Republicans, who would like to see a Pence-like nominee as opposed to Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kan.), must also get behind him in a big way. With his superstar status among movement conservatives, his early adaptation to the Internet and his relationship with the new media, Pence could raise money from the netroots like few other candidates.
Pence’s status as the race’s total-package conservative Republican could provide a boost in recruiting the right kind of staff from the onset, and he would have to be successful in picking up top-level operatives from other campaigns as other candidates drop out. In the end, the staff he can get will depend on him putting out some signs in the next several months, and the degree to which energy from the grassroots convinces top talent that he would be competitive.
Pence’s biggest obstacle could turn out to be a less than extensive portfolio of signature legislative achievements. He must prepare to market nationally his existing record of independence and conviction, but also seek to pass one or two pieces of high-profile legislation in the next two years. Doing so will not be easy under Democrat control, but with their narrow majority in the Senate and a Republican in the White House, there could be potential for Pence to attempt constructive, principled compromise on issues like ethics reforms or even immigration and border security reform, although the latter could prove a long shot.
If Pence declines to enter the race, he might instead set his sights on a statewide bid in 2008. Evan Bayh, Indiana’s junior U.S. senator and a Democrat, has formed an exploratory committee and will make an announcement in January regarding his intentions as a prospective presidential candidate. He does not have to resign his Senate seat to seek his party’s nomination or appear on its national ticket, although if he does, public pressure might compel him to resign his seat in the 1996 tradition of Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kan.). If that happened, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, might appoint Pence to Bayh’s seat.
Pence’s other statewide option in 2008 would be challenge Daniels in a primary, an added incentive for Daniels to select Pence for a vacant seat. Such a challenge has been speculated by some, but not validated by anybody in the Pence camp. Finally, if he instead decides to continue in his role as one of the principal House conservatives, Pence would be well-positioned to make a run for leadership following the 2008 elections.
A Call for Leadership
The right and responsibility of Americans to choose their leaders has in modern history taken its most dynamic form in grassroots presidential politics: first by the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, later the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Now is the time to consider the qualities we seek in a Republican nominee.
Will we nominate and elect a candidate who embraces our core principles of limited government and traditional moral values, or will we support a politician who places political expediency above those principles, and succumb to the growing danger of Big-Government Republicanism? It is up to conservatives of every stripe to call upon and nominate the right leader who is the right candidate at the right time, and that unique figure in 2008 is Mike Pence of Indiana.
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