Philip Rucker of the Washington Post recently interviewed Indiana governor Mike Pence about what qualities Pence is hoping to see in the 2016 Republican nominee, and Pence ended up describing someone a lot like Mike Pence. Even though Pence wouldn't formally say he's running for the 2016 nomination, he's clearly putting himself in the mix. Rucker notes that in some ways Pence seems like a dark horse who's not as well known as Chris Christie or Rand Paul or Scott Walker or Jeb Bush or Rick Perry.
But you don't need to be a celebrity to win a nomination, you just need to be known — and liked — by the network of elected officials, operatives, donors, and ideological activists who make up a modern political party. And that's why I think Pence is actually the guy with the best shot at being the GOP's candidate in 2016.
1) Mike Pence fits the bill
The baseline criteria for becoming a major party presidential nominee is that you have to be the kind of person a major party would nominate for president. Lots of other people participate in debates, do well in occasional polls, and even might win some votes in primaries. But to be the nominee, you have to be like a nominee. And Pence certainly fits the bill — governor of a state is about the most common nominee out there, and his past congressional experience means he's known to DC players. In his congressional days, he made regular media appearances and (unlike, say, Sarah Palin) is prepared to talk about a range of policy issues and field questions from the national press.
2) Mike Pence has avoided controversy
Voters continue to dislike partisan controversy. Presidential aspirants invariably get juice from the idea of somehow floating beyond or above the grubby partisan contentiousness they associate with Washington. Small details like the extent to which your bipartisan dealmaking depended on the existence of an unusually liberal state-level GOP in your state (Obama in Illinois) or an unusually conservative state-level Democratic Party (George W. Bush in Texas) are best brushed over.
As polarization has progressed, that kind of faux-bipartisanship is harder to pull off. Pence has the next best thing, though. Indiana is a sufficiently Republican-dominated state that he's managed to govern without any high-profile clashes with the Democrats. By contrast, Republican governors in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have all gotten embroiled in weird procedural wrangling with Democratic legislatures over anti-union moves.
As of September 25, Pence's Wikipedia page's controversies section only names one controversy — "During Pence's first term as the 50th Governor of Indiana, he was criticized for censoring comments on his official government Facebook page." LOL. He'll do.
3) Mike Pence is well-liked by other GOP politicians
The biggest fallacy about presidential nominations is overestimating the role of rank-and-file voters. As political scientists Marty Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller have shown, established party actors actually exert vast control over the process. When two contenders are very evenly matched in terms of party support — like Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 — then things like get-out-the-vote operations, inspirational speeches, and caucus tactics do make the difference. But generally speaking, the party decides.
As a congressman, Pence was well-liked by his colleagues. After just one term in the House, he became chairman of the Republican Study Committee, an influential factional organization for the most conservative House GOP members. At the start of his forth term in office, he was elected to the number three slot in the leadership. He would be a leading contender to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House had he not left Congress for the governor's mansion. Instead, as a first-time governor he's been elected by his fellow Republican governors to the Executive Committee of the Republican Governor's Association.
What you see here is that Mike Pence doesn't attract the intense devotion of more ideologically distinct candidates like Sens. Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, but he's liked by broader swaths of the party. As Mike Allen put it, Pence has the ability to "bridge the establishment/business and evangelical/tea party wings of the GOP."
Journalists tend to overrate charisma and public-facing speeches while underrating networking. But politics isn't so different from any other industry. Networking matters, and Pence is good at it.
4) Mike Pence is an orthodox conservative
Ideological deviations are something a potential nominee can overcome (see Mitt Romney and health care, or John McCain and immigration) but they don't help. The main thing that makes them surmountable is that generally in any given field everybody's got at least one. Pence does not. Before he ran for office, Pence was a conservative talk radio host so playing to the base is literally the foundation of his career. He represented a safe Republican seat in Congress, and even though his 2012 gubernatorial bid was actually pretty close, Indiana is a pretty solidly conservative state.
He's never faced a ton of objective political pressure to compromise his principles, and his principles are the principles of a highly engaged conservative. Primary voters probably don't know much about him at the moment, but when they do learn about him they'll like what they hear.
5) Mike Pence is plugged into the GOP's new money network
Pence is well-liked by GOP elected officials, but there's more to the party than politicians. One very influential set of party actors in today's Republican Party are the Koch brothers and their financial network. They have ties, obviously, to a number of leading Republicans. But as Kenneth Vogel and Maggie Haberman wrote in August, Pence has the inside track in Koch-land. The key link is Marc Short, a former Pence chief of staff who now runs Freedom Partners, a kind of umbrella organization for the Kochs' various political activities.
Of course there are any number of Republicans who share the Kochs' basic ideological outlook. But the shared taste in senior staffers is a strong indication that the new movers in Republican money also have confidence in Pence's judgment as a leader and organization-builder.
6) Mike Pence broke with his party smartly
Pence joined exactly the right rebellions against the Bush-era GOP. He opposed No Child Left Behind, and led an insurgent group of House members who voted against Bush's 2003 Medicare expansion. Pence also bucked the president to oppose immigration reform in 2007. These are precisely the main Bush initiatives that are now rejected by the vast bulk of the party. They show the base that Pence is not a mindless establishmentarian, while the absence of other significant deviations shows the establishment that he's not a reckless madman either. He picked his battles, and he picked them intelligently.
7) Mike Pence backs Reaganesque economics
Barack Obama took office at a moment in time when macroeconomic circumstances called for a large budget deficit. This led Obama to propose a stimulus measure that both included lots of policies progressives love (and conservatives hate) and that increased the deficit substantially.
Conservatives opposed this bill, and in the course of opposing it found themselves embracing a hard-line anti-deficit ideology that the party had abandoned at least a generation ago. But the GOP didn't abandon its love of cutting tax rates on high income households. Consequently, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan ended up running on a platform that, when you ran the numbers, meant tax cuts for the rich paid for through higher taxes on the middle class and massive cuts in social programs for the needy.
The winning political formula for Republicans has long been, in the immortal words of Dick Cheney, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Cut tax rates for the rich, make that more palatable by also cutting tax rates for the middle class, and then pay for it by … not paying for it.
Pence was a solid supply-sider as a member of Congress, and took Reaganesque fiscal thinking to new heights in his draft proposal for Social Security privatization. While lesser thinkers proposed to cut guaranteed Social Security benefits in order to offer people the rewards of private Social Security accounts, Pence's proposal was to simply assume that the benefits of privatization would be so enormous as to make it possible to guarantee that nobody's accounts would pay less than is offered by today's guaranteed benefits. It's all upside with no downside!
It wouldn't work, of course, any more than promises from Reagan or Bush to increase revenue by cutting taxes worked. But this kind of thing is the time-tested way to sell conservative economic policy and freed from the constraints of Obama-era debates about Keynes, Pence is the ideal person to bring it back.