If the Senate were to remove President Donald Trump from office—which could happen only on a bipartisan vote—the 2016 election results wouldn’t be overturned. Democrats wouldn’t control the White House. America’s reward for convicting Trump would be President Michael Richard Pence.
Nine out of every 10 Republican respondents said in a Quinnipiac poll released Monday that Trump should not be impeached and removed from office. But President Pence would likely be harder for Democrats to dispatch in the 2020 general election than an impeached but still in office President Trump. Pence’s net favorability, while underwater, is better than Trump’s. Upon entering the Oval Office, the low-key Midwesterner might prove willing and able turn the page, restore calm and soothe an exhausted electorate. He could even tap one of the best-liked, least tainted Republicans left standing—former South Carolina Governor and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley—to diversify the ticket.
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If Senate Republicans were to actually listen to that voice in their heads that sounds like Jeff Flake, Trump could be out, and Pence in, before the Iowa caucuses in early February. The Democratic presidential candidates would have to tear up their talking points for how they provide the best chance of beating Trump, and come up with fresh ones for Pence.
Suddenly, the political calculations for Democratic candidates, and Democratic voters, would change. And it could completely flip the current hierarchy of the field.
Joe Biden would have the biggest problem. His entire campaign is based on the premise that his deep experience and pragmatic politics promises to dispatch the aberration that is Trump and return us to normalcy. If Pence had already returned America to normalcy, that would leave Biden without his main argument.
No longer would the president be a bombastic demagogue who slathered crude economic populism, vicious anti-immigrant sentiment and creepy affection to the world’s worst dictators on top of the standard Republican mix of tax cuts, social conservatism and Federalist Society-approved judges. Instead, if Pence reverted to past form, we would have a conventional Republican. The Pence of old worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin was dropping “a new Iron Curtain … down the spine of Europe.” He was a reliable vote for free-trade deals. He even once tried to hammer out an immigration reform compromise that would include a guest worker program. If Pence ended Trump’s anxiety-inducing, market-rattling behavior on the world stage, swing voters in the general election might look past his retrograde views on social issues and breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Also keep in mind that if Pence were president, it would be because enough Republican voters finally had enough, and gave Republican senators the latitude to oust Trump on a bipartisan vote. We wouldn’t be the same polarized country we are right now.
All of that would turn the Democratic race on its head. But the I-alone-can-beat-Trump Biden campaign wouldn’t be the only one to suffer. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would face new challenges, too.
In the aftermath of an unexpected consensus, many Americans may no longer have the appetite for four more years of ideological combat inherent in the fight for “big, structural change” offered by Warren, or the “revolution” urged by Sanders. Warren, in particular, diagnoses every problem facing America as rooted in corruption. Without Trump as a foil, and as long as Pence is perceived as having restored, in the post-Clinton impeachment words of George W. Bush, “honor and dignity” to the White House, Warren’s crusade against corruption might feel outdated.
Pence could even follow the example of Calvin Coolidge, who upon ascending to the presidency after Warren Harding’s death, launched an investigation into the Teapot Dome scandal that led to the conviction of Harding’s interior secretary, and forced out Harding’s shady attorney general. Coolidge was lauded for cleaning house and letting the economy hum, and coasted to win a full term in 1924. Pence may be hugging Trump now, but if he got the presidency, he could recognize the political value in a few strategic sackings of Trump cronies.
And if our septuagenarian top-tier didn’t recalibrate to the new and different campaign led by Pence, then some of the field’s second tier of younger, fresher faces would have a chance to present themselves as more direct contrasts to the new president. They represent a progressivism without the sharp edges that Warren and Sanders like to brandish. And they can be more attuned than Biden is to contemporary cultural sensitivities.
A Pence presidency would be a godsend to Pete Buttigieg. Pence is outside the 21st century cultural mainstream—opposing same-sex marriage and, at least in the past, arguing against women serving in the military. During the spring, the South Bend mayor got his campaign off the ground in part because he wowed Democrats as the first serious gay candidate for president—one who offered a faith-based skewering of his fellow Hoosier. Buttigieg accused Pence of being “the cheerleader for the porn star presidency” and wondered aloud if “he stopped believing in Scripture when he started believing Donald Trump?”
Buttigieg used Pence to burnish his own religious bona fides: “I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand that if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” It was hard for Buttigieg to keep scoring points on the vice president when he’s supposedly running against the president. But if Pence is the president, Buttigieg can keep playing. And it’s tough to imagine how Pence would field a coherent, politically acceptable response.
Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar is more of policy wonk than a culture warrior. But while Democrats don’t seem to think her no-frills style packs enough punch to take down the colorful Trump, a charisma contest against Pence would be easier to win.
California’s Kamala Harris—forever to be known as a “walking, talking TNT show” after Maya Rudolph’s pitch-perfect “Saturday Night Live” portrayal—brings more pizzazz to the stage than either Buttigieg or Klobuchar. And as we saw in her exchange with Biden in the first debate, she can be devastating when prosecuting a case about how we can’t turn back the clock on social process. Although that attack eventually backfired once Biden’s allies circled the wagons, Harris wouldn’t have to worry about offending Democrats when taking Pence to task. However, she would have to convince Democrats that a Bay Area liberal could challenge Pence’s social conservatism and still win the Rust Belt.
Of course, if Pence became president, he might not make politically deft moves that separate himself from Trump. Instead of cleaning house like Coolidge, he could emulate Gerald Ford and pardon Trump. Even if Pence would like to distance himself from Trump, Trump may not let him; already, Trump is reminding the public that Pence had chats with Ukrainians too.
The weaker Pence looks, the less impact he would have on the Democratic primary.
But Democrats should brace themselves for the possibility of a completely reset race—in which much of what happened in the past year no longer matters because the mood of the country has completely transformed.