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Pence’s Presidential Pensées

An Indiana congressman’s critique of Obamaism.

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Against this interpretation, Obama has taken the view that he and his party failed adequately to communicate with the American people about the bills they were passing and the good they were doing. Pence told me that was a “peculiar conclusion,” especially since the president himself had appeared on so many media programs, including even America’s Most Wanted, as to become a “ubiquitous figure in the popular culture.” 

For Pence, such ubiquity is not good for the presidency. Nor does it become the office to have a president who can’t help intruding himself, it seems, into matters not of presidential concern. In our interview, Pence cited as an example how Obama took the brief detention of Henry Louis Gates, the black Harvard professor of African-American Studies, by a white Cambridge police officer as an occasion to talk about race in America—even though the matter, of passing significance, had no federal angle. Pence also pointed to Obama’s comments on whether an Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero in Manhattan, another local matter. These are the actions of a man who, Pence implied at Hillsdale, does not “know when to withdraw, to hold back, and to forgo attention, publicity, or advantage.” 

We have reached the point with the Obama presidency, Pence told me, where it may have worn out its welcome with the American people. Pence’s point is that the presidency is best served by someone who refuses to see it—or himself—as the center of American life, someone who has the discipline, which Obama “has lacked more than any other president in my lifetime,” to “take a half step back and let America be the lead story.” As Pence put it in his speech, “the presidency begs  .  .  .  [for] a new president.” 

What about a President Pence? It seems improbable if you consider that James Garfield was the last man to ascend to the Oval Office from a seat in the House. But Pence may have the qualities the country is starting to look for in its next president. He is a traditional conservative in a country whose electorate has become more conservative. Of special relevance—and a reason he is a Tea Party favorite—is his record as a fiscal conservative. Pence voted against expensive expansions of government supported by Bush and many of his House Republican colleagues, among them the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), the Medicare prescription drug law (2003), and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (2008). In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2004, Pence, who is evidently fond of transportation metaphors, imagined the conservative movement as a tall ship at sea that “has veered off course” into “the dangerous and uncharted waters of big government Republicanism.” 

Not surprisingly, Pence is thinking about running. “We’re determined to come to some decision on that after the turn of the year,” he told me. If he does run, he may find that what he has said so far about the presidency poses a problem to the extent that he is seen—or caricatured—as aspiring to sit in the Oval Office and do little except tell an overreaching Congress “no.” 

In fact, the Framers wanted a president who not only could check Congress but also would undertake as necessary what Alexander Hamilton called “extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit.” Pence does have proposals that would be of clear public benefit—most notably, on tax and regulatory reform. They would be “extensive” in their public reach and “arduous” in the work necessary to enact and implement them. Perhaps the real challenge for Pence would be to run a campaign promising to use the powers of office not to transform the country by instituting yet more government, but to bring about good government limited to its proper sphere.

As for presidential character, Pence has raised a subject that could well receive consideration in 2012 since Obama, whose public demeanor he has called out, will run for a second term. And while it is true that the Constitution doesn’t address the president’s character as such, we have some idea of how presidents should conduct themselves both from the way the presidency was arranged in 1787—the veto being a critical part of the structure—and from, as Harvey Mansfield has written, “the formation of the office by the best presidents.” One was George Washington, who seems never far from Pence’s mind. “Washington’s character and person is as much of the expectation of the presidency,” Pence told me, “as what’s included in the written Constitution.” 

Pence posed this question at Hillsdale: “Isn’t it amazing, given the great and momentous nature of the office, that those who seek it seldom pause to consider what they are seeking?” Amazing indeed. But if Pence runs, he’ll be a welcome exception.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.

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