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COMMENTARY

Why Mike Pence's star is on the rise

MIKE Pence visits Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday in the midst of a national tour to build support for the US-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade treaty. In an administration dominated by the polarising persona of Donald Trump, Mr Pence is assuming growing influence, despite widely-held perceptions about the ineffectiveness and marginality of the vice-presidential position he holds.

Alongside long-standing administration officials like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Mr Pence has been a key player since the early months of the administration; he has, among other things, helped staff federal agencies with allies, and figured prominently in the nomination of Supreme Court justices. More recently, he has played a prominent role in a range of initiatives, ranging from visits to the US southern border to focus on immigration policy, to his current trips around the country to promote USMCA, the Trump team's signature replacement for the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta).

Outside the United States, he has also made several key trips since he assumed office, including to South America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, to support the work of now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; more trips have been planned this autumn.

In all cases, the former governor of Indiana, who is not himself without domestic political controversy, including for his strongly socially conservative views, has helped defuse Mr Trump's sometimes raucous rhetoric.

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Take the example of Mr Pence's South America tour in June 2018. While Venezuela was not on the itinerary, the political crisis in that country hung over the trip following Mr Trump's polarising remarks that he was considering "military options" to intervene there, an unfortunate comment, given long memories on the continent of US interventionism there.

Not only did Mr Pence calm concerns about the US position on the crisis after the president's "military options" rhetoric, he also emphasised US commitment to wider economic and political partnerships throughout the hemisphere, adding weight to the emerging coalition of countries seeking to isolate Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves.

A CALMER OF TENSIONS

Another case study relates to international economic policy where Mr Pence has helped calm tensions fostered by Mr Trump's occasionally protectionist language and actions. For instance, the vice-president has contributed to stronger US-Japan ties in a country initially shaken by the abrupt US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty which the Obama team negotiated, by leading a new US-Japan Economic Dialogue with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.

To be sure, Mr Pence does not enjoy the influence of the most powerful holders of his office. Dick Cheney, for instance, was a predominant voice in many of George W. Bush's big decisions, and is widely viewed as the country's most influential vice-president.

Nevertheless, the prestige and responsibility that Mr Pence already has fits a pattern. The last several incumbents of the vice-presidency - Joe Biden, Mr Cheney, and Al Gore - all enjoyed sizeable influence compared to some predecessors like Dan Quayle. Mr Gore, for instance, was a key influence in the Clinton administration in areas ranging from climate change and environmental policy to promoting fiscal discipline.

As well as these figures all being top political operators, a common structural factor is the increased power of the vice-presidential office. This includes larger staff budgets, greater proximity to the centre of power through a West Wing office in the White House, weekly one-on-one meetings with the president and authority to attend all presidential meetings.

In addition, one "new" factor in this administration that is ramping up the influence of the vice-president is the international disdain in which Mr Trump is widely held, with key figures in numerous foreign capitals welcoming a less polarising, more reassuring interlocutor than the president.

Take the example of Mr Pence's July 2017 trip to Eastern Europe, which came in a context of Mr Trump's uncertain commitment to Nato, and what is widely seen as an inexplicable bromance with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

During the trip, Mr Pence made important visits to see US and Georgian troops participate in a Nato-related exercise, which also included soldiers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine, Armenia and Slovenia. In Montenegro, he met leaders from across the Western Balkans for the Adriatic Charter Summit.

Mr Trump has indicated that Pence will "100 per cent" be his running mate again in 2020, so it appears likely that his influence in the administration can only grow. One relevant factor here is Mr Trump's age. He will be 74 next year if he wins a second term, and is the oldest person to win the US presidency.

This elevates the possibility that, if the Republican ticket gets re-elected, that Mr Pence might not just have growing influence, but also that he may be required to assume the presidency if Mr Trump were to be physically incapacitated or die. This last happened with Lyndon Johnson, who replaced the assassinated John Kennedy.

At 60, Mr Pence is significantly younger than Mr Trump who, despite regular criticism from Democrats, is widely perceived to be capable of assuming the top job.

Even if Mr Trump survives the full duration of his presidency, whether that be one or two terms, all may not be lost for Mr Pence. This is because the vice-presidency has become perhaps the single best transitional office to the Oval Office in recent decades; it is likely that Mr Pence could run for the presidency himself in the future, most likely in 2024 and/or 2028.

One reason vice-presidents have, in the post-war period, enjoyed particular success in snagging their party's presidential nomination relates to the 22nd Amendment in 1951. This constitutional change barred presidents from serving more than two terms, paving the way for vice-presidents with presidential ambitions to organise a campaign in a sitting president's second term without charges of disloyalty.

SITTING VPs OF THE PAST

Since 1960, four sitting vice-presidents - Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Mr Gore in 2000 - have won their respective party's presidential nomination, but then lost the general election. Two vice-presidents have been elected president - Mr Nixon in 1968 and George H. W. Bush in 1988 - so it remains possible that Mr Biden could become a third, given that he has thrown his hat into the 2020 Democratic race.

Taken overall, Mr Pence's power continues to grow, and may do so significantly, especially if the president's health deteriorates or if he loses interest in the job. Moreover, domestic allies and foreign governments are well aware there is a significant chance he could get the top job in the 2020s, if not before, which would turbo-charge his national and global influence.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.