The magnitude of Pence refusing to endorse Trump

A procession of prominent Republicans who wanted to guide their party away from Donald Trump in 2024 have come around to him as the former president became the party’s presumptive nominee. And many have offered virtually the same justification in grudgingly offering support: He’s at least preferable to President Biden.

“I think he’d be better than Joe Biden,” said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. “It’s as simple as that.”

“I mean, the alternative is Biden,” said New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu.

“The choice before the American people is crystal clear: It’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.).

Trump’s own vice president offered a very different take Friday.

In declining to endorse Trump, Mike Pence made a major statement that undercut other Trump-skeptical Republicans who have suggested through their actions that there is no alternative. His decision could also provide a permission structure for others whose endorsements are up in the air, like Nikki Haley, to hold off.

“It should come as no surprise that I will not be endorsing Donald Trump this year,” Pence said told Fox News on Friday.

But it did come as something of a surprise. Pence, after all, had raised his hand at an August debate when he and the other GOP presidential candidates were asked whether they would support even a criminally convicted Trump if he were nominated.

Pence’s stated reasoning is also notable. It’s not that he views Trump as dangerous to democracy, or even so much that he’s upset over Trump’s attacking him for his refusal to try to overturn the 2020 election on Jan. 6, 2021. (Some rioters chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” and Trump attacked Pence on Twitter even after being informed of the Capitol unrest.)

Instead, Pence pitched the current version of Trump as insufficiently conservative on issues such as abortion, the national debt, and China and TikTok.

“Donald Trump is pursuing and articulating an agenda that is at odds with the conservative agenda that we governed on during our four years,” Pence said, “and that is why I cannot in good conscience endorse Donald Trump in this campaign.”

Pence maintained that he wouldn’t support Biden, but he otherwise said he would keep his ballot private. Sometimes, candidates will say that they’re voting for a candidate but that it’s not technically an endorsement; Pence wouldn’t even go that far.

That casts a spotlight on Republicans who have faulted Trump over Jan. 6 or his chaotic governing style but have indicated they have no choice now that he’s set to be the nominee. They’ve treated a Trump endorsement as something that’s pro forma because they share a party label and a common enemy — no matter what they’ve said before.

“As the Republican leader of the Senate, it should not be a front-page headline that I will support the Republican nominee for president,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said last week.

Pence often says, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican — in that order.” In this case, he’s suggesting the second one indeed carries more weight than the third. And that’s a challenge to other Republicans who are emphasizing the third one.

Pence’s lack of an endorsement also highlights the chasm between GOP elected officials and those who actually served alongside Trump in his Cabinet. NBC News last summer reached out to 44 former Cabinet officials and found that only four of them would commit to backing Trump in what was then the early stages of the primary contest. Many have turned into strong Trump critics, like former chief of staff John F. Kelly and former defense secretaries Jim Mattis and Mark T. Esper.

Those officials have something in common with many former allies who have broken with Trump once and for all: They don’t have immediate political futures to mind — and Trump-supporting political bases to appeal to.

Pence is perhaps in that camp as well; his 2024 presidential campaign crashed and burned thanks to Trump turning his base against a vice president who had served him loyally. But there’s at least a feasible path to relevance for Pence in the conservative movement, and he nonetheless has taken a very significant step in bucking Trump.

Now we’ll see if others might follow his example.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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