It’s a good thing Mike Pence has a conscience because he’s going to need it as he struggles with what to do next as Donald Trump’s running mate, including whether he should stay on as Trump’s running mate at all.
If Republicans succeed in convincing Trump to drop out of the race, Pence is the obvious choice to replace him and, according to at least one poll, could defeat Hillary Clinton. But if Trump refuses to get out, the Indiana governor should save himself and his reputation and let Trump clean up the mess he’s made.
Pence, a born-again Christian and former altar boy (you can’t make it up), began the week with a debate performance so strong it nearly erased the memories of Trump’s own disastrous behavior the week before, when he inexplicably attacked a former Miss Universe over her weight gain 20 years ago. Particularly when Pence answered a question about his own religious faith, he was able to assure conservatives that at least one man with a moral compass would be on their ticket in November.
But by Friday night, Republicans were wrestling with how to move forward with a presidential nominee caught on tape making comments about women that were so filthy they border on criminal, and so offensive that mothers across America had to literally cover their children’s ears to shield them from Trump’s so-called “locker room banter.”
Some, like Speaker Paul Ryan, called Trump’s words “sickening,” but made no mention of withdrawing their support for his candidacy. Others, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, said they’d finally had enough of Trump. “I’m done,” Chaffetz told CNN Friday night.
But what about Pence? No other Republican is in as difficult a spot as he is today. Not only is his family’s name literally grafted onto the Trump campaign effort, Pence has famously described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” But it’s hard, at this point, to understand how a Christian, a conservative, or a Republican could support Trump as he drags his candidacy further into the gutter — and his party toward defeat in November.
As a devout Christian and father of two daughters and a son, Pence has said that his faith in God and his relationship with his wife, Karen, are the two strongest influences in his life. He prays so often his staff has a room set aside for him to pray before campaign events. So imagine the moment Pence watched the video from 2005 of the married Trump laughing about groping beautiful women. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said to Billy Bush. “They let you do anything.” In which version of being a Christian is assaulting women or even joking about it so easily dismissed as locker room banter?
As a conservative, Pence has infused his entire governing philosophy with his moral values and argued that conservative policies alone mean nothing without “public virtue.” At the 2010 Values Voter Summit, Pence said that virtue “emanates from the traditional institutions of our nation — life, family and religion.” What kind of public virtue comes from standing with a leader like Trump, who told Bush that he “tried to hit that” with a married woman?
As a Republican, Pence is now the top cheerleader for a nominee who is embarrassing, degrading, and dividing the Republican Party itself. If Pence stays with Trump after this week, he will do it knowing full well what kind misogyny he is empowering and enabling. He will also be an active participant in a campaign that could lose a generation of women, minority and evangelical voters who want no part of a party that not only tolerates, but elevates, a man like Trump.
If Pence leaves the ticket, he could redeem both himself and party in the eyes of many voters, especially Republicans who do not recognize the party they used to support, when it has been given over to a man whose only belief system is rooted in enriching and empowering and enjoying himself, no matter the cost to the people around him.
As easily as the move could help Pence and rocket him to becoming the leading contender for 2020, leaving Trump could backfire, too. Ted Cruz probably thought his “principled” stand against Trump at the RNC was going to go a lot better than it did. But at least Pence could look his wife and daughters in the eye and face the end his career, whenever it comes, knowing that he followed his conscience as a Christian and a conservative, even when it was difficult.
At that same Values Voter conference in 2010 where he spoke about public virtue, Pence gave his fellow conservatives advice that they could all probably use today as they face the moment that will define the GOP, the conservative movement, and all of them as individuals, from this moment forward.
“The time has come to take our stand,” Pence said then. “We must not be afraid and we must fight for what has always been the source of American greatness: our faith in God and our freedom.”
Mike Pence is a good man, but he is being used by a campaign to excuse and endorse the indefensible actions of Donald Trump. The time has come again for Mike Pence to take a stand.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.