It may be startling to imagine the American presidency as a train that “has run off the rails.” But that’s the metaphor Indiana Republican Mike Pence chose in a speech he gave at Hillsdale College on September 20 titled “The Presidency and the Constitution.” Elected last month to his sixth term in the House of Representatives, Pence also delivered a version of the speech in mid November to the Federalist Society in Washington. His sober thoughts on the presidency have been gaining notice in conservative circles, and it’s easy to see why.
Pence assigns responsibility to both Democratic and Republican presidents for the wreckage piling up alongside the tracks. But he is most concerned about the contributions to this disaster being made by the current occupant of the Oval Office, Barack Obama. Pence’s sometimes oblique criticism of Obama is unusual in that it has far less to do with the president’s policies—though Pence’s differences here are deep—than with what the congressman sees as a lack of public virtue or character. Pence says flatly that we need a new president.
Pence’s view of the presidency—and his argument against Obama—begins this way: A republic is about the “limitation” of power; the separation of powers provides such limitation; and the presidency has a special responsibility to limit bad and unconstitutional exercises of legislative power. In recent years, however, presidents of both parties, he said at Hills-dale, “have often forgotten that they are intended to restrain the Congress at times” by using the veto power that comes with the office.
Pence thinks President George W. Bush was too forgetful, declining to use the power until his second term. “I view the veto as a very ordinary tool of restraint by the executive,” Pence told me in an interview. He believes that Bush’s neglect of his responsibility to veto helped bring about “the runaway spending and earmarking culture” of the past decade that has continued and even worsened under Obama, gaining expression in larger deficits and the growing national debt.
As for Obama, so far from seeing his office as a possible restraint upon Congress, he has regarded it, said Pence in his speech, as “an instrument with which to transform the nation . . . according to his highest aspirations.” Thus, Obama has not restrained himself much less the Democratic Congress (two vetoes to date), but instead has enlisted it—a willing participant—in his transformational labor. This is how you get a Congress unbound, Pence said, passing bills such as the health care legislation “of such insulting complexity that they are heavier than chains.”
Pence sees Obama as antirepublican, a man who regards himself as “above us” instead of as “merely one of us.” This “above us” mentality has led to a lack of respect for the people and an unwillingness to defer to their judgment. “My sense,” Pence told me, “is that from the very outset this administration . . . acted as though the president was elected to move his agenda irrespective of the broad desires or sentiments of the American people.” It was undeterred when items on the Obama agenda, most notably health care reform, saw “rising public opposition throughout their consideration” in Congress.
Pence finds Obama a man of “unprecedented presumption,” meaning that he has so little regard for the people and their forms of government that he presumes to use the powers of government to rule. Use of that word might seem over the top but for the fact, noted in Pence’s speech, that two years ago the leader of Obama’s transition team actually said, “It’s important that President-elect Obama is prepared to really take power and begin to rule day one.”
Pence’s criticism of Obama’s character extends to the president’s representation of the country abroad. As long as he is “at home,” a president should be “cautious, dutiful, and deferential,” Pence said at Hillsdale, but “abroad his character must change.” The president “bows to no man,” nor does he “criticize [his] own country,” nor does he “argue the case against the United States but [makes] the case for it,” nor does he “apologize to [our] enemies.” Obama was not mentioned by name in these passages, but it’s clear that in describing how a president should conduct himself abroad, Pence had in mind what he regards as the negative example of Obama.
Pence gave his speech before the midterm elections, and it can be read as his sense of how they would turn out and why. Arguing that the presidency “is neither fit nor intended to be” an instrument of transformation as envisioned by its occupant, Pence said that when a president attempts such a transformation, “the country sustains a wound, and cries out justly and indignantly” and says that “we as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded.” And so the midterm electorate voted as it did on November 2.
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.