No More Losers
Mike Pence promises to be Bob Dole redux.
In the presidential election of 1996, the leader of the Senate Republicans was pummeled into oblivion by the slippery incumbent, who would face a shameful impeachment before the term was up.
It should not have been a difficult campaign. Most people knew Bill Clinton was crooked, and his strategy of triangulation could have been dismantled by any competent opponent. In the midterms, Clinton’s Democratic party had lost control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, giving the strong impression of Republican momentum. At the time, too, no Democratic president had won a second term since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On paper, Dole’s credentials were impeccable. He had served in Congress since 1951, with four terms in the House and five in the Senate. He had chaired both the Republican National Committee and the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and he had led the chamber’s Republicans since 1985. He was a moderate, acceptable (at least acceptable enough) to much of the party’s conservative wing. It was the Buckley rule in action: settle for the rightward-most viable candidate, but don’t look too hard at the math.
In the primary, as it happens, Dole had defeated a long-shot challenger from the right.
Patrick J. Buchanan, the genius behind President Richard Nixon’s populist successes and communications director of the Reagan White House, watched the party founder under George H.W. Bush (whom he had likewise challenged in the primary back in ’92). He watched American jobs be shipped across borders as a result of Bill Clinton’s NAFTA agreement, and he saw whole swathes of the country hollowed out as a result. He watched the steady progress of legal infanticide and public sodomy, and he warned of the consequences a truce with their peddlers would bring. He heard the war drums building in the distance.
So Buchanan ran once again on a platform of American jobs, social order, and geopolitical realism. He traveled the country speaking to the forgotten Americans whose votes had delivered Nixon and Reagan’s monumental wins. He was eloquent, and sharp, and his message resonated with those he called “conservatives of the heart.”
It was not enough to overcome the might of the establishment. Buchanan won Alaska, Louisiana, Missouri, and New Hampshire, and lost everywhere else.
What might have happened if Buchanan stood for the GOP in the general is impossible to say; what did happen is that Bob Dole got walloped.
In presidential politics more broadly, the 20th had been a century of landslides. In the whole hundred years and more before Dole’s shellacking, only three elections had been close ones: 1916, 1960, and 1976. This would be the last of the wide-margin losses. Since the time Nixon initiated a generation of GOP dominance in 1968, the Republican nominee had won, on average, thirty-seven of the fifty states in each presidential election. Twice—in 1972 and 1984—a Republican incumbent carried all but one. Bob Dole pulled nineteen, scraping together just 159 electoral votes against Bill Clinton’s 379.
Bob Dole, that is, was the last massive loser put forward by either major party. What does it say, then, when his campaign manager returns from the grave to foist another candidate on a divided GOP?
Scott Reed, who led Bob Dole and the party to electoral humiliation 27 years ago, was announced this week as co-leader of “Allies of Mike Pence,” a Super PAC set up to fund the former vice-president’s long-shot candidacy for the 2024 nomination.
Since the bungling of 1996, Reed has slinked from swamp role to swamp role, among the most recent of which was political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (He was terminated for cause in 2020 after “an internal review…revealed that Scott repeatedly breached confidentiality, distorted facts for his own benefit, withheld information from chamber leadership and leaked internal information to the press.”)
The choice is poetic, if not much else. Who better to lead a failing campaign than a man with an ironclad track record? Who better to force out the last gasp of the dead consensus than an alumnus of Dole/Kemp?
And make no mistake: Pence will run a dead consensus campaign. His stint as Trump’s V.P. did nothing to bring him around to Trump’s Buchananite, old-school American conservatism. (Dole himself, who endorsed Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary, grew wiser with age and reluctantly endorsed Donald Trump in the general election.) Mike Pence in 2023 is exactly Mike Pence in 2015: a mediocre acolyte of the libertarian fusionism that grafted itself onto the Grand Old Party in the wake of the Second World War.
That means, among other things, that he does not stand a chance. The particular blend of economic laissez-faire and foreign policy hawkishness that Pence represents is a platform virtually without a constituency.
In the first high-profile comments of an as-yet-unofficial campaign, Pence took aim at Social Security and Medicare, criticizing populists’ unwillingness to strip these programs away from the American workers who have paid into them for decades.
Philip Klein, the neoconservative editor of National Review Online, gushes:
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Pence has more recently steadfastly argued about the urgent need to grapple with the nation’s unsustainable entitlements and expressed discomfort with the way that DeSantis has gone after Disney over its opposition to his parental-rights legislation, arguing that it was “beyond the scope of what I, as a conservative, limited-government Republican would be prepared to do.” Additionally, he has offered full-throated support for Ukraine.
This is supposed to convince us, somehow, that Pence checks off the Buckley rule. Yet a candidate who promises that multibillion-dollar corporations will be allowed to groom your children into members of the rainbow cult while your hard-earned dollars are funneled into the advancement of that cult and the channels of corruption in Ukraine is neither right nor viable.
The men and women of middle America who came out in droves for Nixon and Reagan, whose more hopeful vanguard threw in with Buchanan, and who dropped off en masse when offered a squish like Bob Dole, will not be voting for Mike Pence. But if we let him go on, we will have to worry whether they’ll ever vote for a Republican again.