Pence's Influence Likely to Be Limited as VP
Mike Pence is carrying water for a lot of people these days. Social conservatives expect the next vice president to help keep the unpredictable Donald Trump on the rightward path he blazed in the campaign; establishment Republicans hope Pence can tamp down the “drain the swamp” rhetoric that helped Trump get elected; and Americans of various ideological stripes are wishing Pence well in his endeavor to sand down some of the president-elect’s rough edges.
During remarks at a Heritage Foundation dinner earlier this month, Pence’s tactful dexterity was on display. Spotting Trump’s bitter former rival Carly Fiorina in the audience, the vice president-elect lauded her as “a great, great voice for conservatism in America,” while asking her to stand and be recognized.
Afterward, Pence privately urged Fiorina to set up a meeting with Trump, according to a source with knowledge of their conversation. The following week, Fiorina indeed sat down with the president-elect at his eponymous tower in Manhattan, where they discussed China’s influence and other foreign policy matters.
But here’s the rub: Pence was not in the room for that meeting, and although those in Fiorina’s circle did call to set up the private powwow, Pence didn’t have enough clout to make it happen on his own. And since then, Fiorina’s name has not been seriously floated for any role within the administration.
“I sure don’t get where Mike Pence’s influence matters,” said the source, “other than, that meeting happened because he said it should happen.”
If some of Trump's skeptics have pinned their hopes on his VP, they might find themselves disappointed. Pence’s approach to the vice presidency, while still percolating, so far suggests a role of modest influence.
Some Republicans have speculated that Pence, a longtime elected official with deep connections in the capital, would guide Trump through the wilds of Washington — and in the process, exert outsized power for a vice president. But Pence’s style has so far suggested a quieter, less influential approach. And it remains to be seen whether Trump is inclined to delegate authority to a number two anyway.
In an interview earlier this year with ABC News, Pence said he would model his vice presidency after that of Dick Cheney, who expanded the powers of his office far beyond its historical boundaries.
“Vice President Cheney had experience in Congress, as I do,” Pence said, “and he was very active in working with members of the House and the Senate.”
The better analog for Pence as he prepares to move into the Naval Observatory might instead be Joe Biden, another vice president with deep congressional experience and an affection for Capitol Hill. Unlike Cheney, however, who at times commanded a power center equal to that of his boss, Biden has primarily acted as a loyal foot soldier to President Obama, helping to push and amplify the president’s priorities.
Likewise, Pence has fashioned himself publicly and privately as a supporting actor in the administration to come. Even as he has led transition efforts since the election, Pence is not, as Cheney was, actively involved in steering strategy or policy for the president-elect: He has not been present in most key meetings, and he has maintained a base in Washington, while Trump has remained in New York.
Instead, the former congressman has used his connections and Washington know-how to map practical avenues by which to bring Trump’s ideas to fruition, and harness the people who can deliver them.
Late last month, for example, Pence tweeted a photo of himself meeting with his “good friend” Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. When Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” recording dropped during the campaign, Rice had lamented on Facebook that the GOP’s standard-bearer “should not be President” and “should withdraw.” But Rice later warmed enough to Trump to recommend, according to reports, that he nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state — and the president-elect did so.
Pence’s fingerprints also seemed to appear on other picks for top posts, including his friend Rep. Tom Price as Health and Human Services secretary, and Seema Verma as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Verma worked closely with Pence in Indiana to engineer his state’s Medicaid expansion, Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0.
But Pence, an alumnus of House Republican leadership, has most aggressively positioned himself as the incoming administration’s natural liaison to Congress, very much in the Biden mold.
“I do think the president-elect has a great appreciation for my relationships with members of Congress,” Pence told Fox News in an interview last month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham sees Pence as Trump’s “9-1-1 guy,” standing ready to put out impending fires on the Hill. Pence is “making a real point to be the liaison the Congress,” Graham said — and the South Carolina lawmaker, no a fan of Trump’s during the campaign, hopes that will indeed be the case.
“He speaks ‘Congress,’ and that can be helpful to the president,” Graham said.
Pence already has met with Republican leaders on the Hill, and he spoke earlier this month at the weekly Senate Republican luncheon, where Pence is expected to stop by semi-regularly for discussions and updates in the new administration. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Pence’s team so far “has been really engaged.”
“We've had several helpful and productive meetings and calls with Vice President-elect Pence and his team,” Stewart said, “and those are ongoing.”
Still, it is unclear what Pence’s policy portfolio as vice president will contain, if anything in particular. A vice president’s role is fluid from one administration to the next, and even within an administration. At the start of Obama’s first term, some White House officials characterized Biden as an “adviser in chief” without any set initiatives; later, he publicly took the lead on Iraq-related matters, a tangible and powerful role.
But Biden and Cheney both, crucially, commanded the ears of the presidents they served. Both met privately with their respective presidents for weekly lunches, an opportunity to provide counsel and discussion.
One early indicator of the working relationship between Pence and Trump might be the deal with Carrier to keep some manufacturing jobs in Indiana, which the company planned to eliminate by shifting operations to Mexico.
The state of Indiana had already offered millions of dollars in incentives to entice Carrier to stay, which Pence likely negotiated. And Pence was in the room with Trump when the incoming president called Carrier to discuss the arrangement. But Pence afterward afforded Trump most of the credit, telling the crowd at the Heritage dinner that the deal came together “because of the initiative of our president-elect.”
Not taking credit has become Pence’s style, on the campaign trail and afterward. But the next vice president has also insisted that there is no furious paddling beneath the surface for power or influence in the incoming administration.
“Let me be very clear: President-elect Donald Trump, when he becomes President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, will be the one leading the Trump administration,” Pence told Fox News last month. “And I'll be providing a supporting role.”