Before the House Freedom Caucus made it cool to leverage power by openly combating the Republican leadership, there was Mike Pence.
During his dozen years in Congress, Pence was among the most confrontational conservatives of the previous decade. By pairing an absolutist approach to policy questions with unambiguous ambition, he became head of the Republican Study Committee, then home base for the House’s hardest right, before claiming the No. 3 spot in the GOP hierarchy with one of the most notable outsider-goes-inside maneuvers of recent congressional vintage.
That’s the reputation Pence is hoping gets remembered right now. Because if Donald Trump is going to anoint him as running mate, cultural conservatives will have to first be mollified of any lingering queasiness about Pence’s term as Indiana’s governor.
After a rally with Pence in the Indianapolis suburbs Tuesday night, apparently the last of Trump’s undisguised tryouts for those on his short list, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is expected to reveal his vice presidential choice by week’s end.
Any current anxiety among leaders of the religious right stem from the single most contentious period of Pence’s governorship: After signing a law last year written in the name of protecting religious liberties, which angered a significant portion of the state who viewed the measure as sanctioning discrimination against gays and lesbians , he then approved changes in language that social conservatives chastised as curtailing religious freedom.
Opening himself up to being criticized as pandering and inconsistent, labels applied from both ends of the political spectrum, would have been totally out of character during Pence’s time at the Capitol. He had a notable iconoclastic streak during his six terms, to be sure, but also a consistent ability to persuade critics that his outside-the-box ideas were consistent with his principles.
At the Capitol, Pence liked to describe himself to congressional colleagues as “a Christian , a conservative and a Republican — in that order.” The prioritization did not always sit well with his colleagues, either on the ideological edges of the House GOP or in the leadership suites.
The clearest evidence of this is how Pence, despite having spent two years leading the most influential caucus of about 100 conservatives, got just 27 votes in challenging John A. Boehner for minority leader after the GOP lost control of the House in 2006. Pence had the backing of the conservative commentariat outside the Beltway (he was even named Human Events man of the year) but many colleagues groused that he’d gone too far in his criticisms of the GOP’s fondness for higher spending and parochial earmarking.
Just one election later, Pence secured Boehner’s backing and ended up unopposed for a two-year term as chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Creating a more coordinated and disciplined messaging operation, and embracing the new world of social media, were top priorities in that post. It was a natural fit for Pence who, before coming to Congress, had honed his conservative brand for a decade as a radio talk show host syndicated across Indiana. And by the time he left in 2012, he was comfortably in the good graces of his House colleagues.
His style, which he’s termed “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” but which others see as simply wooden, would serve as a counterweight to Trump’s extemporaneous boisterousness.
And if Trump is still looking for a No. 2 who could serve as a ready-made bridge to Republicans in Congress — who remain acutely skeptical about both the likely nominee's conservatism and his interest in legislative collaboration — then Pence clearly fits the bill.
While only 29 members of today’s House majority have been around long enough to know Newt Gingrich, another vice-presidential finalist , as their Speaker in the late 1990s, fully 73 of them worked with Pence when he chaired the conference. And 60 more were freshmen during Pence’s final term, when he largely stepped away from the limelight while pondering a presidential run before deciding instead to run for governor.
His recent troubles with the Indiana religious liberties law aside, Pence had an unambiguous standing in Congress as a social conservative. He opposed federal spending on embryonic stem cell research, was active in efforts to advance a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, fought expansion of abortion rights, and got new federal funding for Planned Parenthood cut off for a time.
More provocative are the varied ways in which he went against the Republican grain while in Congress.
He fought against the No Child Left Behind education law and worked even harder to muster conservative opposition to creation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit; he viewed President George W. Bush’s top first-term domestic policy objectives as overly broad and unduly expensive expansions of federal reach. He opposed Bush at the end of his tenure, as well, on the massive infusions of federal help for Wall Street and the auto industry during the 2008 economic calamity.
Perhaps his furthest stray from orthodoxy came a decade ago, when he proposed a comprehensive immigration bill that would have required illegal immigrants to leave the country but would have allowed them to eventually return and become eligible for U.S. citizenship. Pence said the Christian virtues of thriftiness, hard work and second chances should be honored, siting the example of a beloved grandfather who emigrated from Ireland in 1923.
But many conservatives derided him for advocating “amnesty,” rhetoric sure to be resurrected if Pence ends up as the GOP vice presidential nominee. And there are at least two other apparent disconnects between Trump and the congressional-vintage version of his potential running mate.
Whereas Trump has vowed to loosen libel law to make it easier for public officials to win damages from media outlets, Pence in the House promoted a bill to make it tougher to subpoena reporters, because he said “there is nothing more consistent with my belief in limited government than maintaining a free and independent press.”
And while Trump's attacks on his rivals have stretched almost all previous bounds of propriety, Pence made a name for himself with a confessional essay after he lost his first two campaigns for Congress.
“Negative campaigning, I now know, is wrong,” he wrote in 1991, in part because “the faithful were left with so few clues as to how I would have governed differently.”