Pence, They Say: Why Indiana’s Governor Isn’t A ‘Wartime Consigliere’

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is taking a lot of heat today — from the left and the right — from national media and local media — over his handling of the Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Putting aside the merits of the actual law (since there is no lack of commentary on that), it is generally agreed that Pence has failed as a communicator. And this strikes me as both interesting and troubling — since I’ve always considered him to be pretty good at this. (He has always struck me as an affable conservative who could defend the cause as a cheerful warrior. For whatever reason, that has not worked in Indiana.)

Indeed, one could assume the fact that Democrats are keen to brand him a “bigot” is proof they see him as a formidable future opponent, and are attempting to strangle the baby in the crib by branding him with a term that is hard, if not impossible, to overcome.

Now, it could simply be that Pence was ill-prepared for the kind of controversy this law ignited. In fact, he has essentially acknowledged that. So maybe he’s a good communicator who simply didn’t do his homework. But I think it’s also entirely possible that Pence was simply not temperamentally suited to this situation — that he was the wrong messenger. I’m left wondering this: When push comes to shove, is it wise to send a happy warrior to fight a culture war? To put it bluntly: Pence is not a wartime consigliere.

In a recent column, I argued that some GOP candidates (like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) are better equipped than others (specifically, Scott Walker) to articulate a conservative vision to Americans who don’t already think of themselves as conservative. And I still believe that to be true. But I also think we must recognize that different situations call for different skill sets.

That’s why I think this is an instructive lesson regarding the 2016 presidential campaign (regardless of whether or not Pence runs — and I suspect he won’t).

Conservatives who believe it’s time to elect a Republican who can inspire and eloquently persuade 21st century Americans might come to different conclusions about who’s best for the job than conservatives who think the primary job of the next president is to fight. In the former case, someone like Pence might be perfect; in the latter role, a Scott Walker or a Ted Cruz would be much better suited.

This isn’t entirely hypothetical. Scott Walker endured a similar controversy in Wisconsin back in 2011, surrounding his collective bargaining bill. And, for now, at least, it appears that Pence won’t perform as well as Walker. As you might recall, this was a huge controversy (remember how Democratic lawmakers literally decided to flee the state?)

Now, you might say this is not a perfect analogy — and you’d be right (for one thing, support for compulsory union membership seems to be waning, while more and more Americans are embracing the cause of gay rights). Ultimately, Walker prevailed. The controversy didn’t get to him.

A theory: Unlike a lot of successful politicians, Scott Walker seems to lack that political gene that makes him need to be universally liked. Perhaps this isn’t a mere coincidence? Maybe that gene is also necessary for charisma? … And maybe a prerequisite to being really likable (the gene Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had) is a hunger to be liked?

My friend Thomas LaDuke, a conservative who produces my podcast, recently told me that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would have handled Tuesday’s press conference much better than Pence. Christie, he says, would have stood up to the media and exhausted their questions. Christie is a natural brawler; Pence is not. To be fair, his penchant for fighting has arguably harmed Christie’s presidential chances, but it’s hard to deny he have been better-suited behind that podium.

The point I am making here is simply that different times call for different leaders. Someone who is brave in one setting might be a coward in another. I’m reminded of something that former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger once observed about a war hero-turned-politician of his day: “[T]here are different types of courage. Leo [Thorsness] was a brave flier and a brave prisoner, doing things in battle and enduring things as a POW that make me shrink to think of. But he lacked political courage.”

So when conservatives look at someone who can deliver soaring rhetoric and eloquent speeches — and then assume he can also withstand the maelstrom of political war … don’t count on it. At least, don’t assume it. Similarly, when conservatives look at someone’s courage as a governor, and then extrapolate that she’d make a great president, that might also be an unwise assumption.

The bottom line is this: If you think the next eight years are going to be like what’s happening in Indiana right now, then you probably want a fighter who can endure pressure and controversy. But if you think this is a unique situation, then you might want a cheerful conservative with an optimistic message who can inspire.

It is the rare politician who can do it all. Even the best politicians have strengths and witnesses. And for those who are specifically worried about defending religious liberty, I leave you with this quote that you might find familiar:

“And it is he who gifted some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, and still others to be pastors and teachers…”

… And this:

“To everything, there is a season… A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Matt K. Lewis