Opinion

Mike Pence 2.0: New, But Not Exactly Improved

John Nothdurft Director of Government Relations, Heartland Institute

Many commentators on the right have Indiana Gov. Mike Pence on their 2016 presidential nominee shortlist. After all, they say, Pence has earned it.

Pence spent 12 years in Congress building his conservative street cred. He railed against Bush-era policies such as the bailouts and No Child Left Behind, and he launched a quixotic bid to replace John Boehner as minority leader in 2006.

It’s difficult for social conservatives or tax-cutting supply-siders not to love Mike Pence. Only such a self-proclaimed “happy warrior for conservatism” could buck his own party, become the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, and set fundraising records while becoming the odds-on favorite to replace party darling Mitch Daniels as governor of the Hoosier State.

When asked about his White House ambitions, Pence brushes off the question and says he’s focused on Indiana. But his record says otherwise. The person now occupying the governor’s mansion in Indianapolis doesn’t look like the Mike Pence conservatives originally came to trust. Over the past 18 months, a Pence 2.0 has emerged — one who embraces big-government solutions while claiming to fight against them.

Consider, for example, the Common Core education standards, against which parents around the nation have protested as a nationalization of curriculum with politicized, dumbed-down requirements. In April, Pence penned a triumphant piece in the Indianapolis Star touting Indiana’s first-in-the-nation exit from the controversial program to impose national academic standards.

What happened next came courtesy of Pence 2.0. Indiana didn’t return to its rigorous pre-Common Core standards, described by The Heritage Foundation as “state-driven and, most importantly, supported by teachers and parents.

Instead, Pence 2.0 implemented Common Core by another name.

Writing at National Review, Stanley Kurtz says Indiana’s new standards are “nothing but a slightly mangled and rebranded version of what they supposedly replace.” Some education experts actually proclaimed the new standards to be even worse than Common Core. Indiana voters responded by ousting two Pence-backed Common Core supporters in the GOP legislative primary.

Unfortunately, Pence 2.0 is just getting started. Faced with a decision about Obamacare, the once-staunch fiscal conservative who led the charge against the law is currently in talks with the federal government to implement Obamacare’s massive Medicaid expansion.

Pence’s proposal, the “Healthy Indiana Plan 2.0,” would use Obamacare dollars to give Medicaid benefits to more than 375,000 able-bodied adults — more than three-quarters of whom have no children. In doing so, Pence 2.0 affirms there’s no principle limiting who should be eligible for government-funded welfare.

But to hear Pence 2.0 tell it, you would think his move to expand Medicaid is positively Reaganesque. In fact, he invoked the Gipper repeatedly while unveiling the plan at the American Enterprise Institute.

A growing number of health policy experts aren’t buying Pence’s revisionism. Writers at Forbes debunked Pence’s argument that his plan is a block grant, noting,

“By definition, Medicaid block grants give states a fixed, lump sum of federal dollars in exchange for broad autonomy in providing Medicaid benefits. Pence’s plan features neither of these elements. Under Pence’s ObamaCare expansion, Indiana will draw down increasing amounts of ObamaCare in exchange for adding more people to the Medicaid rolls.”

The Heritage Foundation calls the plan “disappointing.” And over at The Federalist, Dean Clancy writes, “Two camps are emerging among GOP governors: those who oppose the Obamacare expansion, and those who pretend to. Pence has now officially joined the pretender camp.”

People often say politicians’ campaign promises disappear when they start to govern. That’s certainly the case with Mike Pence 2.0, who has been rebranding big-government policies as conservative and apparently hoping voters won’t notice. Here’s hoping they do.

John Nothdurft (jnothdurft@heartland.org) is director of government relations for The Heartland Institute.