It’s a rare occasion indeed when one can say, “Damn, Mike Pence really nailed it,” but Wednesday was one of those extraordinary days.
As he announced his presidential candidacy, the former Republican vice president took aim at the man he had served loyally for four years before finally breaking with him by refusing to participate in his boss’s disgraceful scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election. That refusal prompted Donald Trump to denounce Pence by tweet on Jan. 6, 2021, the day Congress met to count the Electoral College votes — and that tweet led the MAGA mob storming the Capitol to chant for Pence’s execution.
Noting that Trump’s reckless Jan. 6 words “had endangered my family and everyone else at the Capitol,” Pence said: “The American people deserve to know that on that day, President Trump also demanded that I choose between him and the Constitution. Now, voters will be faced with the same choice.”
At very least Republican primary voters will. As Pence’s crisp formulation makes clear, after Trump’s scandalous efforts to overturn the presidential election, one can’t support him again for president and plausibly claim to also support the US Constitution or American democracy.
So kudos to Pence for telling it like it was and is. For some months, it had looked as though the other Republican presidential candidates would ignore the rogue elephant in the room: Trump’s demonstrated disregard for both our Constitution and our democracy. Until this week, most seemed content to wait for another candidate or another development to hobble Trump. Their collective message: Hello, fellow Republicans, if for any reason you decide you might like to move on, please note that I’m available.
Take Ron DeSantis, Trump’s principal rival. As he has gone about his bullies-are-us campaign, the Florida governor has presented himself as a more competent and conservative version of Trump, the pugnacious cultural warrior. (Remember when GOP hopefuls used to model the sunny optimism of a certain Ronald Wilson Reagan?)
And who knows, with the former president under indictment in Manhattan for business fraud and reportedly facing probable federal indictment related to mishandling confidential documents after his presidency, that craven calculation may not be such a bad bet.
But now, the gloves have come off.
Pence isn’t the only one to offer a sharp and damning critique of Trump. On Tuesday, erstwhile Trump ally and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie launched his own presidential candidacy as a Trump-seeking political missile.
True to his New Jersey roots, Christie was blunt about his approach.
“I am going to be very clear — I’m going out there to take out Donald Trump,” he said. “There is one lane to the Republican nomination and he’s in front of it. And if you want to win, you better go right through him because let me guarantee something from knowing him for 22 years: He’s going to try to go through Ron [DeSantis] and Nikki [Haley] and Tim [Scott] and anyone else who stands in his way.”
He minced even fewer words about his former friend, calling him someone “who is obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault, and who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong, but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right.”
Christie, who intends to focus on New Hampshire, will have an ally of sorts in Granite State Governor Chris Sununu. On Monday, Sununu said he wouldn’t run himself, but that as governor of the first GOP primary state, he would dedicate himself to stopping Trump, whom he views as a near-certain general election loser.
Now, if Trump’s cultish and credulous MAGA base stays committed while other GOP hopefuls divide the non-Trump primary vote, the entry of two Trump-targeting candidates obviously could end up helping the man they hope to hobble. Trump could still end up as the GOP nominee, effectively forcing his party to embrace or finesse his now thoroughly refuted lie that the last election was stolen.
Biden and his team would welcome that outcome, for this reason: Although voters very much want to move on from Trump and Biden, if offered a choice between the two, they seem prepared to grit their teeth and vote for the Democrat again.
But though pundits have a habit of mistaking the current moment for eternity, campaigns are not steady-state equations. Another indictment, a dramatic debate, or a key primary loss and everything could change fast and dramatically.
In the early going, the GOP candidates have resembled a tightly racked triangle of billiard balls. But now not one but two cues are coming at the number-one ball at the triangle’s tip with sufficient force to break up the current configuration.
After months of stasis, the Republican race is about to get interesting.