Add Mike Pence to the growing list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. Although the Indiana governor has insisted he is focusing on his state, he is widely perceived to be testing the waters. This week, he will pitch his variation of Medicaid expansion at the American Enterprise Institute.
There have been Pence for president boomlets in the past, but this one makes more sense on paper. Movement conservatives have frequently been elected to the House and Senate, but rarely have they been governors. Pence’s 2012 election as the 50th governor of Indiana gives him the executive experience that Beltway right favorites from Jack Kemp to Paul Ryan have lacked.
Pence did his tour of duty on Capitol Hill, however. He was elected to the House in 2000—the same year George W. Bush, with whom Pence shares mannerisms, won the presidency—and served six terms, peaking at chairman of the Republican conference.
But Pence wasn’t always a reliable vote for Bush or the leadership. He voted against No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and the Wall Street bailout. He was an early critic of the period’s excessive spending, a subject on which many Republicans only found religion after Barack Obama became president.
After the disastrous 2006 elections, Pence challenged John Boehner for minority leader. He got crushed 168 to 27, but remained a leader of the caucus’s conservative wing. Pence’s plaintive description of the GOP at that time became something of a rallying cry on the right: “Republicans didn’t just lose our majority, we lost our way.”
The former radio talk show host is an evangelical Christian. He is also a “three-legged stool” conservative, who unlike Mitt Romney or John McCain doesn’t have to flip-flop on any major issue to check the standard boxes.
Three issues could nevertheless doom Pence with conservatives long before the primaries roll around. Each are more important to activists than your average voter, but significant enough to allow other viable candidates to get to his right. Taken together, they could seriously erode conservatives’ trust in Pence.
With great fanfare, Pence signed legislation pulling Indiana out of Common Core, making it the first state to junk the controversial education standards many Tea Party conservatives see as a precursor to a national curriculum. “I believe education is a state and local function,” he said. He then embraced new academic standards that were panned as “warmed over” Common Core.
Hoosiers Against Common Core describes Pence’s standards as “re-branding Common Core” and the bill he signed back in March as “a ruse to fool Common Core opponents.” The group says on its website, “The legislation gave the appearance of voiding the Common Core while the Indiana Department of Education and the Center for Education and Career Innovation walked it through the backdoor.”
Then Pence announced he would accept the federal funds that come with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. But he vowed to seek a waiver that would allow him to pursue Medicaid reforms based on former Gov. Mitch Daniels’s Healthy Indiana Plan rather than the traditional Medicaid plan.
“Reforming traditional Medicaid through this kind of market-based, consumer-driven approach is essential to creating better health outcomes and curbing the dramatic growth in Medicaid spending,” the governor said.
Some conservatives see this too as sleight of hand. One complained to the Indianapolis Star it was “merely the latest iteration of full Obamacare Medicaid expansion thinly disguised as a conservative entitlement reform.” Other critics wrote at Forbes, “Gov. Pence has tried to cover his ObamaCare expansion plan with the veneer of the Healthy Indiana Plan begun by Mitch Daniels.”
Those who have followed Pence since he was in Congress may remember a third instance where he tried to split the baby on a contentious issue. In May 2006, as House Republicans stood against an immigration plan hatched by Bush, John McCain, and Ted Kennedy, Pence gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation in which he outlined “a rational middle ground” between “amnesty and mass deportation.”
Pence’s proposal was an ambitious guest-worker program that essentially privatized a large part of immigration enforcement. “Private worker placement agencies that we could call ‘Ellis Island Centers’ will be licensed by the federal government to match willing guest workers with jobs in America that employers cannot fill with American workers,” he said.
Like credit card companies and temp agencies, these companies will do all the required screenings “in a matter of days.” There was a flicker of interest before feasibility questions arose. Would illegal immigrants really return home to apply to Ellis Island Centers? Wouldn’t these private companies have a conflict of interest when it came to keeping anyone out? Wasn’t this really amnesty by another name?
The Pence immigration plan went nowhere. Neither will his presidential bid if he acquires a reputation as someone who opposes liberal initiatives only to refurbish them as “market-based” versions of the same.
Time will tell whether Pence is a conservative savior or another Republican who has lost his way.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?