In recent months, former Vice President Mike Pence has made dramatic tactical swings, looking more like a pinball than someone preparing himself for a national campaign.
In June, the Republican publicly criticized Donald Trump’s scheme to overturn the 2020 election, and the comments were not well received on the right. A few months later, Pence swung in the opposite direction and denounced scrutiny of the Jan. 6 attack, making conservatives happy anew.
A few months after that, Pence again criticized the former president’s anti-election plan, only to swing back again soon after, defending the Republican National Committee’s controversial “legitimate political discourse” rhetoric.
The pattern suggested it was time for the former vice president to say something the right would find provocative again, which as NBC News reported, is what happened on Friday night.
Former Vice President Mike Pence told GOP donors Friday night that the party “cannot win by fighting yesterday’s battles,” while also strongly condemning apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The remarks, at a Republican National Committee event in New Orleans, created further distance between him and former President Donald Trump.
On the heels of Trump praising Putin as “genius” and “savvy” as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine got underway, Pence declared on Friday night, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”
He added, “Elections are about the future. My fellow Republicans, we can only win if we are united around an optimistic vision for the future based on our highest values. We cannot win by fighting yesterday’s battles, or by relitigating the past.”
Pence didn’t mention his former boss by name, but he didn’t have to: There’s really only one national GOP leader who’s eager to relitigate the past and serve as a Putin apologist.
There’s no great mystery behind the rhetoric. The former vice president, eyeing another bid for national office, is trying to establish a distinct political identity: Pence, we’re supposed to believe, is effectively Trump without all the affection for the Kremlin.
The Hoosier also clearly wants to brush past “yesterday’s battles” since so much of the party’s far-right base blames him for following the law and helping certify the results of the 2020 election.
But this isn’t as straightforward as Pence would like. He did, after all, serve at Trump’s right hand for four years, gladly going along as the Republican White House pursued a variety of policies in line with Moscow’s wishes.
Indeed, when Trump withheld military support for Ukraine in 2019 as part of an illegal extortion scheme, Pence could’ve stepped up and done the right thing, but instead he defended the administration’s tactics.
In other words, the more the former vice president tries to carefully walk a fine line and distance himself from the former president, the more he’s stuck: Trump’s critics see Pence’s efforts as too little, too late, while Trump’s supporters see Pence’s efforts as too much, too soon.
That said, the former president himself has been slow to engage. After Pence publicly said he was “wrong” last month, Trump held his rhetorical fire. After Friday night’s speech, the former president didn’t respond at all, at least not yet. I won’t pretend to know why this has happened — perhaps Trump believes Pence could help expose politically damaging truths? — but it’s another dimension to the larger story worth watching.