If you want to know just about everything there is to know about Mike Pence, he’s happy to tell in ten words: “A Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
Brevity is in short supply in a town known for people who love to talk, particularly about themselves, but Pence has always been an outlier. He’s been a strong social conservative, fighting as a Congressman in Washington and a governor in Indiana for religious rights and pro-life legislation. And he’s been a fierce fiscal conservative, voting against the stimulus bill and in favor of a Constitutional amendment that would limit government spending to the average revenue over the last three years.
It’s not his bold policy stances that have set him apart. There’s plenty of firebrands in Congress. It’s the ease with which he’s able to communicate those ideas and work with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle to achieve them, that makes Pence different.
“I’m a conservative,” Pence says. “But I’m not angry about it.”
Pence’s patience is the product of a long and winding political career. He grew up admiring John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and was a volunteer for the Bartholomew County Democrat Party in 1976. As he aged, he gradually became more conservative, a viewpoint that were buttressed by the lessons he received on the founding fathers while a history major at Hanover College.
After school, Pence became a precinct committeeman for the Marion County Republican Party, where he quickly became enamored of the party and the process. He soon sought and won the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. House seat in Indiana’s 2nd district, which left him to face an entrenched incumbent in Rep. Phil Sharp.
Despite his underdog status, Pence was almost able to unseat Sharp, but was defeated handily in a rematch in 1990. Pence didn’t lick his wounds for long. He went on to lead the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a conservative think tank in Fort Wayne, and more importantly, used his natural gravitas and local political knowledge to host a political talk radio show.
It was a hit.
“It was pleasant radio, like a fireside-type chat,” the radio station’s owner labeled it. Pence described it as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.” But local political science professor Brian Vargus said he was more Joe Scarborough than Rush Limbaugh.
“You would normally get both sides,” he said in 2012. “He’d tend to be more Republican than Democrat, but you’d get both sides.”
Pleasant, persuasive and balanced became the Pence brand. And after ten years on the radio Pence was once again ready to give Congress a shot. in 2000, just after Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution swept through Washington he won the first of six straight elections. In many ways it was an odd time to be a fiscal conservative.
“I was like the frozen man,” Mr. Pence said of his poor timing in a 2004 speech. “Frozen before the revolution; thawed after it was over. A minuteman who showed up 10 years too late.”
But Pence fought nonetheless. In 2001, when President Bush proposed a sweeping education bill known as No Child Left Behind that would dramatically increase the size and role of the federal Department of Education, Pence refused to support it. He favored state control and he was willing to buck his president if it meant sticking to principle. In hindsight the decision was impeccable. No Child Left Behind was dramatically amended earlier this year after many of Pence’s concerns about the intrusion of federal bureaucrats into local decision-making were proven out over time.
Two years later, Pence spearheaded the conservative opposition to another of President Bush’s plans, this time the Medicare prescription drug benefit. He almost succeeded too.
“We simply didn’t come here to increase entitlements and to create bigger government,” Pence said. “We came here to make government smaller.”
And, if we’re being honest, to make the family stronger. But Pence sees his fiscal and social conservatism as inextricably linked: “You would not be able to print enough money in a thousand years to pay for the government you would need if the traditional family continues to collapse.”
Pence’s principled conservatism during the Bush years served him well during the rise of President Obama and the expanding influence of the Tea Party. Pence was elected to be the leader of the Republican Study Committee, a perch that made him one of the primary thorn in Nancy Pelosi’s side. He opposed the bailout of the financial industry, voted against the stimulus, and was a leader in the debt ceiling fights that led to enormous spending cuts. Even still, Pence was one to make friends, not enemies.
“He has a particularly strong talent, a gift if you will, for being able to stick to principle while making his political opponents, or those who disagree with him, feel like they are being heard and respected,” Ryan Streeter, a former Pence aide and George W. Bush staffer told ABC News.
All of those talents. His indomitable faith. His gift for communication. His deep well of empathy. And his principled conservatism will serve him well as Donald Trump’s vice presidential candidate. He provides much more than just balance to the ticket, he provides the the type of wise counsel that can only come from someone who has looked Washington in the eye and seen firsthand everything that is wrong.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. See more of his work HERE.