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What is the Republican B-Team Thinking?

Let’s interrogate the ambitions of Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Glenn Youngkin, Nikki Haley, and Ted Cruz.

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ON THE TARMAC—The 2024 presidential race is a little like this flight: it's unclear when it’s going to start; it's likely to go on forever; it's all I can think about; it's going to happen somehow, in some mysterious fashion.

Politically, whether it is a crimson autumn or a sapphire season will soon be the stuff of knowledge, and quickly of memory. It is important, but whatever goes down is near certain to be swiftly upstaged as America barrels towards a cinematic zenith. Both sides bill the coming storm as essentially the most significant presidential election since our bloody brother war, as Johnny Cash termed the 1860’s.

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What, then, do such seemingly plain-Jane, long-shot figures—all perhaps better suited to running in 1995—such as former vice president Mike Pence, former secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, current Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, and Texas senator Ted Cruz think they’re doing? 

Certainly, a Republican Party freshly radicalized will re-anoint its prophet, the forty-fifth president. Or, if not, it shall opt for its man of action, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, the American mega-state leaning right. As Yuri Orlov described the outskirts of Monrovia, Liberia—“I don’t even want to gaze into it”—so too for the Republican D-league, or whatever the NBA calls the netherworld of pro ball these days. 

But what of this, the Republican B-team? All are poised to run, and are perhaps even more certain to challenge a Trump than DeSantis campaign, for reasons both of relative ideological separation and simply having less to lose. 

Has Chinese fentanyl breached the GOP brain trust? 

Even so, let’s look through rose-tinted glasses at the moonshine campaigns for president. (In that you’ve got to drink it to believe them.)

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Mike Pence will crib a strategy from Liz Truss (who did win her election). Mike Pence will highlight something called the “Trump-Pence tax cuts,” as his key aide Marc Short does. The ex-veep will try to win Iowa, banking on Trump’s indolence or what he will see as DeSantis’s overly secular shtick, and then dare the rest of the party to rebuke him. Pence will try to rip a page from the master, and ingest that there is no such thing as bad publicity, only notoriety, even anti-Trump infamy. Though it didn’t work for Jeb Bush, Pence will attempt to make the winner’s case to South Carolina voters, arguably citizens of a pleasant junta military state, that ultimately, he is a greater man and patriot than his ex-employer. Pence will then challenge America to vote for Kamala Harris over him. It is Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign with more gravitas and name recognition, if less charisma. But that was also the difference between Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke.

Mike Pompeo’s bid will be much the same as Pence’s, but fiercer and far more foreign policy-focused. Sure, no one will out-Israel Pompeo. He made that clear in his 2020 GOP convention address. With an eye toward to the future, it was live from Jerusalem. That matters in Evangelical Iowa. No one will out work Pompeo. That matters everywhere else. You might find him arrogant and ridiculous. But so is seeking the presidency. Pompeo’s slimmed down so he can perhaps attempt to literally eat Joe Biden on a debate stage. Of this quintet, count me a buyer here.

Governor Youngkin will gamble that there are more rich-ish Republican dads than I think there are. He confabbed in that land of secret societies, Charlottesville, over the weekend with some, let’s say, Youngkin-league glitterati. His victory in 2021 was a hollow man feat political maneuverability, but he’s made clear the kind of Republican is: a Glenn Youngkin Republican. The brand is so nontransferable that the man himself is honor-bound to run for president. A longtime Virginia politico noted—“Ask President [Doug] Wilder,” “Ask President [Chuck] Robb”—of the pitfalls of an early-term Virginia star run for the Oval. It doesn’t seem like Youngkin’s asking them. And for the GOP establishment, the prospect of competing in Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico (where Youngkin is conspicuously campaigning) is too delectable for them to not whisper these things after one too many Richmond Reserve bourbons (previously labeled “RICHMOND: THE CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH,” but no more). If his career is any indication, Youngkin has little use for losing sides anyways. Though he seemingly has a thin grasp of the anger that makes people in this land vote Republican, I’m also not fully persuaded that matters.

Nikki Haley, as with Pence and Pompeo, is the more picante, more foreign policy-focused version of this particular genre. She is, succinctly, the candidate of lawyers who read the great Powerline blog and think she’s sort of attractive. She is not Donald Trump, and for this set, that rocks. She is ethnic Jeanne Kirkpatrick. She would Cabinet-level empower a horror show of Iraq War intellectuals, and Kirkpatrick was kind of bad, but never mind that. The former governor, Haley 2024 would be justifiably anchored in the port of Charleston; but she would attempt to win New Hampshire first. A defense contractor’s delight might strike some as a strange maverick indeed, but that was also John McCain, who in a different rotation of history would have been president.

Last but not least, Ted Cruz, the brainiest of the bunch and certainly the most cynical, is gambling on precedent, as a great lawyer would. GOP runner-ups have fared well in the nominating process as of late: from Reagan, to George Bush, to Bob Dole, to McCain, to Mitt Romney. It’s a mixed bag to actually becoming president, but what the hell? 

As Walter Mondale told my late mentor Mark Perry in a Washington men’s room years back on why he ran for president only to get routed: “You NEVER know.”

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