In the span of a week, Utah has hosted two of the top Republican contenders for president in 2024 — and the contrast in styles couldn’t be more stark.
Where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave a speech crammed with buzzwords, red meat and grievances, former Vice President Mike Pence’s fireside chat with his pal, former Gov. Gary Herbert, was about as genteel as we see in our current political discourse.
DeSantis offered a barn-burner, while Pence’s approach was more fit for a barn-raising.
Now, obviously, a lot of that comes down to the crowd. While DeSantis spoke to a crowd of several thousand riled-up party activists at the Utah Republican Party’s state organizing convention, Pence’s forum was more genteel — perched on the 18th floor of the Zions Bank building before about 150 business leaders and political insiders who munched chicken salads on white table cloths.
But I came away wondering if there is still a place for someone like Pence in the Republican Party, or is it now captive to The Donald and The Ronald? And I wasn’t the only one asking that question. Talking to Herbert after, he pondered the same thing.
“Can a guy with that kind of demeanor,” Herbert asked, “who doesn’t go out and call his opponents names, win in today’s political climate?”
The question is rhetorical, he said. We don’t know the answer yet.
But from where I sit, it’s hard to see how any of this ends well for Pence. Indeed, the latest polling in Utah illustrates the challenge he faces.
An OH Predictive Insights poll last month had Donald Trump with 41% support among Utah Republican voters, DeSantis 23% and Pence at 10%.
A Hinckley Institute of Politics and Deseret News poll of registered Utah voters from all parties conducted at the same time had DeSantis leading with 21%, Trump at 16%, former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney at 12%, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 5% and Pence at 4%, barely ahead of the margin of error.
Dang, Mike Pence.
On Friday, Pence led his audience on a predictably cerebral discussion where he expressed adoration for his wife; advocated for entitlement reform to balance the budget; pressed for a border wall and merit-based immigration policy; and encouraged reliance on free-market principles to reform welfare programs.
He took some shots at the “failed policies” of President Joe Biden that, he says, have “weakened America.” Pence also criticized the Democratic Party as having been co-opted by Bernie Sanders socialists and the “radical left.”
But it was mild compared to DeSantis, who blasted “woke” policies 10 times during his speech; condemned “the left” or “leftists” 15 times; and played all the right-wing hits, from banning transgender health care treatment and outlawing diversity offices on college campuses to his war with Mickey Mouse.
Pence repeatedly plugged his autobiography, “So Help Me God,” about his time in politics, while DeSantis has supposedly penned his own volume. But today’s GOP base is more interested in banning books than reading them, and that’s what DeSantis gave them, so help me God.
Today’s Republican base wants fire. They want spectacle. Theatrics. They want to feast on the bones of their political enemies, not a scoop of mashed potatoes in a glass of warm water.
Pence’s biggest applause line — a day after he reportedly spent five hours testifying before a grand jury in the Jan. 6 investigation — came when he recounted the “tragic day” when rioters overran the Capitol calling for Pence to be hanged. Yet, the former president told the crowd, “thanks to the courage of law enforcement ... I believe a day of tragedy became a triumph of freedom.”
“I believe by God’s grace we did our duty that day to the Constitution,” he said.
It drew him a standing ovation on Friday, and, generally speaking, he is right. But never, in more than 230 years of the republic, was the peaceful transition of power ever in such jeopardy — all thanks to the fury fueled by democracy’s arsonist whose sidecar Pence rode in for four years.
None of this is intended so much to be an indictment of Pence, but of the political climate in which we live.
Pence was born in simpler political times. According to his autobiography, he first ran for Congress when Ronald Reagan was still president (Just kidding. I didn’t read it, but I’m sure it’s probably in there somewhere). He was elected to Congress in 2000, back when the institution was still semi-functional, and then was governor of Indiana from 2013 until he became vice president in 2017.
Make no mistake, he is as conservative as anyone in the field — perhaps more so. But in an era where people like Marjorie Taylor Greene can be superstars of the party, Pence comes off as a quaint relic.
It’s a party of showmen and shaman (of the QAnon ilk) more than statesmen — assuming Pence is the latter.
At one point Friday, Herbert asked Pence about the divisiveness in politics and within the Republican Party, and what is to be done about it.
“I believe the American people want to see us restore a threshold of civility in our politics,” Pence said. “I believe there’s a hunger in this country to restore civility to our public debate. Our politics is more divided than any time in my lifetime, but I’m not convinced the American people are as divided as our politics.”
I hope he’s right. But in today’s Republican Party, at least, it seems like it doesn’t matter how competent or conservative you might be.
This party of Trump and DeSantis is better suited for professional wrestling than politics. And no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to imagine a spandex-clad Mike Pence flying off the top rope and bashing his opponents’ head in with a folding chair.