With the water slowly rising in the West Wing, even those of us who've expressed repeated skepticism about the possibility of impeaching President Trump have begun to think more seriously about what would follow the sinking of the Trump administration.
Though former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's key role in selecting Mike Pence as Trump's running mate raises the intriguing possibility that the vice president could also go down with the ship, leading to the ascension of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to the presidency, the more likely scenario is that if President Trump goes down, America would end up with President Pence.
And that raises its own set of troubling questions.
Many on the left regard the prospect of Mike Pence in the Oval Office as potentially worse than Donald Trump — since in place of the current president's full-spectrum ignorance and incompetence, we'd get someone who actually knows how to enact an agenda that would match or perhaps even surpass Trump's in its right-wing extremism and brutality.
Many Never Trump conservatives and establishment Republicans, meanwhile, think Pence would be a vast improvement on Trump. Yes, he's been a loyal member of the Trump campaign and administration, defending a multitude of indefensible statements and actions. But deep down, Pence knows better, and once he's freed to be his own man, he'll revert to his pre-Trump positions on a range of issues and govern honorably as a center-right conservative in the mold of George W. Bush.
Both predictions are partially wrong, and in ways that illuminate something important about the distinctive dangers of a Pence administration.
Pundits at every point on the political spectrum should be able to agree that there's at least one respect in which America and the world would be indisputably better off with the U.S. being led by a President Pence: the diminished likelihood that we will stumble into a nuclear conflagration with North Korea (or other powers) due to the president's ineptitude, know-nothing bluster, and digitally amplified big mouth.
As a member of Congress and governor of Indiana, Pence may not have distinguished himself for his geopolitical acumen, but he does seem more likely than the current inhabitant of the White House to follow the counsel of advisers who possess the expertise to set and pursue broadly rational and consistent policies. Coming just 14 years after a former Republican governor lacking foreign policy experience invaded Iraq on the advice of his staff, that might not sound very reassuring. But as bad as the Iraq War and its aftermath proved to be, there really are worse possibilities — and a nuclear war is undeniably one of them.
Aside from avoiding the worst possible foreign policy outcome, is there any respect in which a Pence administration would represent an improvement over the Trump administration? Conservative critics of Trump tend to highlight three defects of the current president beyond his temperamental and intellectual lack of fitness to serve as commander in chief: the president's opposition to free trade, his hostility to immigration, and his generally dishonorable way of comporting himself.
It is certainly hard to image Mike Pence getting caught on tape bragging about sexual assault, or hurling insults at rivals and political opponents. In that limited sense, Pence probably would be an improvement on Trump. Though we should also keep in mind just how willing Pence has been to play along with Trump's distinctive style of polarizing racial demagoguery. How do we know he wouldn't adopt such a playbook for himself if he ended up in the Oval Office and faced the need to persuade outraged Trump voters to switch their loyalty to him?
And that brings us to the two areas of policy where conservatives think they have reason to hope a President Pence would revert to his own previous un-Trumpian positions: trade and immigration. It's true that, like most elected Republicans during the 2000s, Pence tended to support free trade and favored a more liberal position on immigration than the one that won Trump the nomination of his party in 2016. Yet it's also clear that neither issue has been of primary importance to him. As a devoted member of the most libertarian faction of the religious right, Pence has pushed hard for cuts to taxes and regulations, along with doing his best to advance the social conservative agenda favored by so many of his fellow evangelical Protestants.
The campaign that catapulted him to the pinnacle of political power as well as the administration in which he currently serves combines these core issues with previously unorthodox positions on trade and immigration. The result has been electoral and policy success, with the administration winning power and then consistently doing the bidding of both the corporate and religious right over and over again. What incentive would Pence have to change course once he's seated behind the Resolute Desk? None that I can see.
This doesn't mean that a Pence administration would realize the worst Handmaid's Tale-inspired fever dreams of feminists, LGBT activists, and secular liberals. But it does mean that the left's take on Pence is probably closer to the truth than the one commonly held by the center-right.
Pence is very conservative and very ambitious — and he's politically astute enough to have taken note of the prevailing mood among members of the Republican electorate. That most likely means that a Mike Pence elevated to the Oval Office in the midst of a destabilizing scandal that brought down his predecessor would have every incentive in the world not to change course.
Which means he'd have every incentive to govern like a vastly more competent Donald Trump.