Pence and Haley Aren’t the Future of the GOP—They’re Roadkill
While they might have been formidable Republican presidential candidates in, say, 2012, the party has moved on.
There’s a scene in The War Room, a documentary about the 1992 presidential campaign, where Bill Clinton strategist James Carville declares that George H.W. Bush has the “stench of yesterday. He is so yesterday, if I think of yesterday, if I think of an old calendar, I think of George Bush’s face on it.”
Today, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley reek. The only problem is that they don’t realize the stench is coming from them. Yet.
On Monday night, Pence went on Fox News with Sean Hannity to downplay the insurrection that might have killed him. “I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by focusing on one day in January,” he said. “They want to use that one day to try and demean the character and intentions of 74 million Americans who believed we could be strong again and prosperous again and supported our administration in 2016 and 2020.”
Meanwhile, Nikki Haley is continuing her wishy-washy routine, declaring: “I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”
It’s good that she doesn’t want to go back—because that would be impossible. Still, Haley oscillates between criticizing Donald Trump and praising him. Even Trump himself has joked about it. “Well, every time she criticizes me, she uncriticizes me about 15 minutes later,” Trump said last month. “I guess she gets the base.”
But does she?
Pence and Haley seem to think they can thread the needle the way they might have “triangulated” between their conservative base and the mainstream media in the past. They think that they can be “compassionate conservatives” who also downplay the Jan. 6 insurrection. They think they can marry Reagan-Bush conservatism with Trumpism, at least in part, by humiliating themselves. But these things are mutually exclusive and an era that values extremes like Trump on the right and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the left doesn’t reward half-measures.
As liberal columnist and Texan Jim Hightower put it decades ago, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.
Today, everyone knows that it will be next to impossible to succeed Trump as the Republican Party standard bearer if he wants to play Grover Cleveland and run again. (Good luck selling Republican voters on a kinder, gentler Trump lite when the man himself is offering the pure, uncut stuff.)
Even if Trump doesn’t seek the presidency in 2024, Trumpism will linger. Republicans will line up behind someone more authentically like Trump, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (and no, I’m not persuaded by this poll) or maybe another right-wing celebrity who never held public office will emerge (think my old boss Tucker Carlson). Pence and Haley will likely end up with nothing. Not even their dignity.
Anyone whom the MAGA base suspects of being a RINO is a dead armadillo now. The best advice I could offer Pence and Haley is to disappear. Since they can’t go back in time, and since swimming against the tide is (at best) treading water, the best thing they could do is wait for the world to change. But they’re still here, acting like no one will remember they were caught swimming naked when the tide rolls back in.
Why is it that everybody but Pence and Haley can see this? As Richard Feynman put it, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” It truly is the rare person who knows to quit when the quitting is good.
There’s a great story about how Jani Lane, the front man for the late ’80s glam metal band Warrant, realized in a split second his career was over. He walked into Columbia Records, saw an Alice In Chains poster over the secretary’s desk, and thought: “Hello Seattle, goodbye Warrant.” He wasn’t wrong. A year earlier, his band’s poster had adorned the wall. But times were changing, and grunge was ascendant. I think about this story whenever vanilla Republicans like Pence or Haley reemerge. The main difference between them and the “Cherry Pie” rocker is that they lack his realism and level of self-awareness.
While Pence and Haley might have been formidable Republican presidential candidates in, say, 2012, the party has moved on—whether they like it or not. Timing is everything in politics, as Chris Christie could tell you.
Remember, Donald Trump was, once upon a time, a failed Reform Party candidate. Tucker Carlson was once booed at CPAC. Times change. Fortunes rise and fall. One of the keys is to accept reality—and pick your spot. And for the next few years, the writing on the wall is clear: It’s “Hello Florida, goodbye Pence and Haley.”