State Department photo by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain

From the Center

Expectations were low when former Vice President Mike Pence took the stage on Saturday night at the Gridiron Dinner, the Washington institution where politicians and journalists try to entertain their colleagues in a less-than-serious way.

But Pence actually got some good reviews for the way he played off of his straight-arrow, deeply religious persona.

“I always wanted to be the bad boy, the rebel type, the hell-raiser,” Pence admitted. “You know, someone like.. Mitt Romney.”

While Pence might not have convinced the audience that he was the Johnny Depp or Justin Bieber of politics, his one-liner might have been an effective foreshadowing of the decidedly non-humorous news he made as he concluded his remarks. After several months over which Pence and the other Republican presidential hopefuls have been tip-toeing around their decidedly mild criticisms of Donald Trump, Pence went straight at his former boss.

“History will hold Donald Trump accountable for Jan. 6,” Pence said. “Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way. President Trump was wrong. His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.”

Pence’s attack marks a new phase in the race for the GOP nomination. Up until now, the other potential candidates have either avoiding mentioning Trump’s name altogether or have employed a gold-watch approach in which they thank him for his service and suggest that his time might now have passed. 

But the usually mild-mannered Pence, who has frequently been lampooned for his obsequiousness toward the man under whom he served for four years, not only took on Trump unsparingly, but did so on what may be the most polarizing topic in American politics. No shortage of Republican leaders originally condemned Trump for his conduct on January 6, but almost all of them backed down fairly quickly. (And almost all of those who did not soften their disapproval are no longer in office.)

The question is now whether other Republican contenders will follow Pence’s example and ramp up their criticism of Trump as well – either on January 6 or other topics. 

Aside from Liz Cheney’s, whose harsh condemnations of Trump cost her a congressional seat and would make either a GOP or independent campaign a quixotic effort, the field breaks down into two categories. Those who have been more forceful in their comments on Trump – Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire and former governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Larry Hogan of Maryland – are either non-committal about the race or (in Hogan’s case) now entertaining an independent option instead. 

The more plausible candidates — Nikki Haley and Tim Scott of South Carolina, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and most notably, Florida governor Ron DeSantis — utter Trump’s name only when under extreme duress.

But now that Pence has broken this barrier, the pressure will increase on the rest of the potential entrants to follow suit. At the time this was written, neither Trump nor his surrogates have responded to his former running mate, so the ferocity of their pushback (and whether it comes from a spokesperson or the candidate himself) could be determinative. As a declared candidate, Haley will face the highest expectations to follow Pence into the fray. Pompeo is known for his tart tongue, and might be tempted to engage directly too. Scott, who talks is loftier language, seems less likely to take this route. And DeSantis clearly sees no advantage in confronting Trump anytime soon: that clash is probably months away.

The path forward for Pence is difficult to predict. He was never going to peel away Trump’s most loyal supporters, and he is now gambling that religious conservatives who have grown weary of Trump might turn to him instead. He may benefit from other candidates taking up this fight as well. Or alternatively, this could set him apart from the rest of the field by elevating him as an anti-Truth teller.

There is no way to know what comes next, but the Republican primary campaign has clearly entered a new stage. Few would have predicted that this stage would commence at a comedy dinner for Washington insiders. But it is likely to be that type of campaign.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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