Analysis

Trumped by Trump, Mike Pence heads to obscurity

Donald Trump and Mike Pence at the 2016 Republican national convention. (Photo: Mark Reinstein, via Shutterstock)

The biggest casualty of the 2020 election was, of course, Donald Trump, who became only the fifth president since the 1800s to be booted out of office after one term — and the first in 28 years. But the second most prominent victim may turn out to be Trump’s sidekick, Vice President Mike Pence.

It’s been pretty clear from the very beginning that Pence was aiming to run ultimately for president in his own right, probably his motivation for accepting the nod as Trump’s No. 2 in the first place. He has been a sycophantic Trump defender and explainer in all things, having mastered early on the Nancy Reaganesque adoring gaze at the president whenever in his presence. Be true to the boss, I’m sure Pence thought, and he’ll fall heir to Trump’s fanatical base in his own run.

Mondale was annihilated, losing 49 states, carrying only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

But in the two most recent cases of one-term presidents — George H.W. Bush in ‘92 and Jimmy Carter in ‘80 — their politically ambitious understudies embarrassingly flamed out when they pulled themselves out of the debris, dusted themselves off and ran in their own right four years later.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who went down with Carter in the 1980 Reagan landslide, began running almost immediately for the Democratic nomination in 1984. He faced a significant and tenacious opponent in Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, and barely won the nomination after a fractious primary process in which Hart refused to concede. Mondale made history by choosing the first-ever female running mate on a major party ticket, New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, a move designed to engender enthusiasm and motivate the Democratic base. But alas, after running a lackluster campaign and being spanked by Reagan in the debates, Mondale was annihilated, losing 49 states, carrying only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

That takes us to Dan Quayle, the last defeated sitting vice president with visions of sugar plums dancing in his head sent about avenging his boss’s loss and running for president in his own right. It was widely assumed by the pundits and prognosticators that Quayle would seek the ’96 GOP nomination, and that he would have the pole position. Conservative columnist Jack Anderson in the Washington Post was a particularly exuberant shill for Quayle, writing that Quayle had the inside track, claiming that Quayle “tops the list,” and that his “biggest strength is his fundraising ability.”

In all of U.S history, only two vice presidents have ever been elected president after an interregnum between their service in that post and their election as president.

But Quayle’s ’96 campaign ultimately got little traction, and in February of 1995, he withdrew from the race before it even really started, coming only three weeks after he had announced his candidacy at a rally in Indianapolis. Given the hype about his supposed advantage in fundraising, it was ironic that the New York Times headline on the story announcing Quayle’s withdrawal read “Facing financial squeeze, Quayle pulls out of ’96 race.”   

But it wasn’t the ex-veep’s last humiliation as a presidential aspirant. Lest we forget, Quayle also announced he was going to run in 2000. By then almost a political footnote, his second attempted comeback didn’t end well, either. After finishing eighth — yes, eighth — in the Iowa straw poll, the former conservative darling dropped out of the race and out of sight, claiming he couldn’t raise the money to compete.

In fact, in all of U.S history, only two vice presidents have ever been elected president after an interregnum between their service in that post and their election as president – Richard Nixon, who won in 1968 after leaving office as vice president in 1961, and now Joe Biden, elected commander in chief four years after departing as vice president.

But even these two exceptions did not involve the circumstances Pence will face – having been ejected from office unceremoniously with his boss after one term, with the president with whom he served essentially in disrepute with a large majority of voters. Both former Pres. Eisenhower and former Pres. Obama remained in high regard during the campaigns of their erstwhile underlings.

Also, neither Nixon nor Biden had to contend with a defeated ex-president who threatened to run again to redeem himself. Trump will surely dominate the race and suck most of the air out of the room in the 2024 race if he does run – and demean and denigrate Pence to no end with his base if he dares run against him.

So, Mike Pence, welcome as a prospective member of the Mondale-Quayle Hall of Forgotten Vice Presidents. Congrats, I guess.

Editor’s Note: California political consultant
Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist and commentator who managed Gov. Gray Davis’ successful campaigns in 1998 and 2002, and played central roles in three presidential campaigns.


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