Former Vice President Mike Pence was ready to deliver the speech that would kick off his unofficial campaign for the 2024 presidential election.
He was on a plane en route to Washington, D.C. The Heritage Foundation, for which he was to speak, had named him a distinguished visiting fellow and had devoted considerable resources to promoting the speech, excited to be the forum for the unofficial launch. The chairs in the hall where he would speak were set up. All eyes in Washington were focused on what was plainly meant to be a campaign speech.
But a thunderstorm over the Washington area forced Pence’s plane to be diverted. The speech was canceled.
The symbolism for the unofficial launch of Pence’s campaign isn’t good. If a storm kept him out of Washington, will the American people do so as well?
His poll numbers also are not starting very high: A July New York Times/Siena poll found that 6 percent of Republicans would vote for Pence while 49 percent would vote for Trump.
Pence understood that he couldn’t delay his speech. Former President Donald Trump was to deliver a speech on Tuesday — his first in D.C. since the end of his presidency — and Pence needed to set a contrast between himself and the former president, with whom he has fallen out. His plan was to unveil a conservative agenda for the future, while in theory Trump would in parallel continue going off claiming that he is the true winner of the 2020 election.
So Pence delivered his prepared campaign speech Tuesday morning for the Young Americans for Freedom National Conservative Student Conference, an annual meeting of college students from across the nation.
“God must have had different plans for today,” he told the room of assembled students. “God decided that a talk about an agenda for the future should be given to the rising generation.”
Pence, who began his speech with folksy anecdotes about waiting 25 minutes for a table at an Indiana Olive Garden with his family and buying a John Deere riding mower to take care of the considerable acreage of his new home, immediately addressed Trump in an underhanded way: Conservatism, he said, “is bigger than any one moment, any one election, or any one person.”
“It’s always been about ideas,” he said.
Pence’s ideas for the future included an assemblage of the more culturally focused conservative demands that have grown louder since the beginning of the Biden administration: advancing pro-life protections in all 50 states, helping women in crisis pregnancies, shutting down critical race theory (which he called “state-sanctioned racism”), fighting for school choice, protecting girls sports from boys who identify as transgender, defending the Second Amendment, and advocating for religious freedom.
Achieving economic prosperity and providing for a strong defense rounded out his three-part vision.
Pence called for economic prosperity to be “driven by our commitment to freedom.” He pointed to his record as vice president, during which the U.S. achieved the lowest unemployment rate, highest median household income, and the most energy production in its history. He bewailed the high gas prices and inflation under Biden.
In deference to the growing isolationism on the American right, Pence quoted John Quincy Adams in saying that America should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but he came out more firmly on the side that America should defend freedom around the world, pledging unabashed support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, saying, “Conservatives must make it clear that Putin must stop or Putin will pay.” He spoke out strongly against China, crediting the Trump–Pence administration with waking up the American people to the conclusion that China is an evil empire to be opposed.
Interspersed throughout the speech were statements filled with buzzwords, including “positive,” “vision,” “optimistic,” “unite,” “future,” “freedom,” and “leadership,” that attempted to differentiate Pence from Trump by portraying Pence as a principled leader focused on the future (and not the 2020 election):
“Now more than ever, we need leadership and vision.”
“In order to win, conservatives need to do more than criticize and complain. We must unite our movement behind a bold, optimistic agenda that offers a clear and compelling choice to the American people.”
“Conservatives need to be focused on the challenges Americans are facing today and offer a bold and positive agenda of solutions for the future.”
“There is a cure for what ails America, and that is leadership committed to American freedom.”
“We need to lead America with a freedom agenda focused on the future.”
“Some people may choose to focus on the past. But elections are about the future.”
“Future” is evidently Pence’s code word for the message that “unlike Trump, I’m over the 2020 election and will not relitigate it.” “Positive,” meanwhile, seems intended to communicate that his style of statesmanship would differ from the bombastic nature of Trump’s. Mentions of “leadership” are aimed at convincing that he, unlike the controversial Trump, is the man for the job.
During the question-and-answer session, one student pointedly asked Pence about the divide between himself and Trump. Pence chose the strategy of minimizing differences between himself and the former president, saying, “I don’t know that our movement is divided, I don’t know if the president or I differ on the issues, but we may differ in focus.” That’s in line with Pence’s goal of differentiating himself from Trump while still seeking the support of the former president’s longtime supporters.
At his speech at the America First Policy Institute on Tuesday, Trump devoted considerable focus to his policy agenda, but he also unleashed his furor against the Jan. 6 Committee, saying that it is made up of “political hacks and thugs.” Conversely, Pence called the Jan. 6 riot a “tragic day at our nation’s Capitol.”
These two speeches are likely just part of a much longer duel between the former running mates. The next match takes place next week in the form of the Arizona gubernatorial primary, in which the two have endorsed competing candidates.
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