There have been nine accidental presidents.
Four succeeded men who died of natural causes, brought into the presidency by a bad cold, cholera, “a stroke of apoplexy” and a hemorrhage.1 Four more owed their office to bullets, that most American way of death. One succeeded a man who resigned his office in disgrace.
Five months into President Trump’s term, there are at least three major investigations into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and whether Trump’s campaign was involved. James Comey, the former FBI director, was fired on Trump’s orders and claims that Trump privately asked him to stop the agency’s investigation into Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser. Special counsel Robert Mueller is now reportedly investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. Comey also kept records about his interactions with the president because he felt Trump “might lie” about the nature of their meetings. Republican senator John McCain has likened the growing Russia affair to Watergate, and impeachment, an idea once only spoken of by the far left, has found itself on the lips of members of Congress and on the pages of the nation’s legacy outlets.
The path to impeachment is a winding one, and even Democratic leaders have cautioned that it’s far too early to initiate proceedings. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation, and imagining a world without Trump may prompt another question to slither into the American mind:
What sort of accidental president would Michael Richard Pence be?
We can’t know the exact circumstances that would lead to a President Pence, but there are various paths that could deliver him to the White House. There are the paths of human folly: Trump might resign after a scandal roars out of control, or be impeached, which could lead to his removal from office. (Unlikely if Republicans maintain their dominance in Congress.) Or forces of nature could wreak havoc on the Trump presidency: Trump could become mentally or physically incapacitated, leading to a transfer of power under the 25th Amendment. Or he might die before completing his term.
The events that precede Pence’s swearing-in would no doubt shape his tenure in ways that can’t be predicted. But the make and measure of a man is not wholly defined by his circumstances. Pence is a political figure of specific principle and ideology, and his past may give us hints about the president he would be. A reading of his political history reveals a devoted adherent to an unbending conservative worldview but also a man chastened by the realities of governing a society undergoing profound change. Above all, it shows a political survivor, attuned to the delicate dynamics of a capricious White House — and perhaps patient enough to be playing the long game of the Trump presidency.
Pence the ideologue
During his time as governor of Indiana, Pence was largely known for his social conservatism, but before that, while he was serving in Congress, he was a budget-slashing tea party-type before there was a tea party to be part of. If he were to become the president, Pence, who once called himself an “unregenerate supply-sider,” would likely use his time in office to push for the same thing that he’s been working toward over the last two decades: cuts to the federal budget along with a deeply socially conservative agenda.
Long before he was Trump’s official warm-up act, Pence was the darling of the right. While he was in Congress — he served from 2001 to 2013 — no substantive Pence-sponsored legislation became law, but he rose through the Republican ranks on the strength of his strict adherence to conservative principle.
In 2005, the conservative publication Human Events named Pence their “Man of the Year.” At the time, Pence headed the Republican Study Committee, a group of far-right House conservatives fed up with what Human Events deemed the “big-government conservatism” that had “ruled the roost during the Bush years in Washington.” Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, as Congress sought to fund the recovery process on the Gulf Coast, Pence and his congressional allies proposed $500 billion in cuts to federal programs, including Medicare prescription drug benefits, to pay for the rebuilding. Pence served as a public face of the proposal that conservatives called “Operation Offset.” “We simply can’t allow a catastrophe of nature to become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren,” Pence said at the time.
Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, was smitten when he talked about Pence in 2006, during Pence’s third term in Congress. “Nobody is perfect, but he comes pretty close,” Weyrich said. “He is what I’ve been waiting for in terms of leadership.”
There is a group of Republicans these days who would be happy to see Pence in the White House, according to a SurveyMonkey poll conducted recently on behalf of FiveThirtyEight. A plurality of Trump voters who said they were not excited to have voted for the president said that if they could vote again for any Republican, they would choose Pence. And while many of Pence’s hardline anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage beliefs are out of step with the American mainstream — 57 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 61 percent approve of gay marriage — his affable public persona might serve him well, particularly if he were to assume office after a turbulent end to the Trump presidency.
“I think his best gift is his simplicity and clarity of communication,” Curt Smith, head of the Indiana Family Institute and a Pence ally during his governorship, told me. “It’s authentic and winsome.” Pence, a former political talk radio host, likes to say he’s “conservative but not mad about it.”
Most famously, Pence is a politician whose evangelical Protestant religious beliefs play a substantial role in his policy decisions. He is widely regarded as the impetus behind Trump’s signing of a religious-liberty executive order, reaffirming the protections of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which were intended to prohibit the government from placing a “substantial burden” on an individual’s exercise of religion. Pence signed a more expansive religious-liberty measure while he was governor of Indiana and received backlash from gay rights groups, universities and businesses, which said the law would legalize discrimination based on sexual orientation.
As president, Pence could also have significant impact on policies affecting LGBT Americans. While President Trump chose to uphold President Obama’s executive order explicitly protecting federal workers from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, a President Pence might well roll it back — it would be a move in keeping with his public statements over the years.
Pence has a long history of opposing gay marriage, and statements from the archived version of his 2000 congressional campaign website contain controversial language about protections for gay Americans, including that “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals as a ‘discreet and insular minority’ entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.” The site also references Pence’s stance that federal dollars should not be directed to “organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus.” And it says that “resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” When asked by The New York Times last year, a Pence spokesman denied that this referred to the maligned practice of gay “conversion therapy.”
If Pence were to take over for Trump, his past suggests that he may try to be that conservative hero that Paul Weyrich imagined all those years ago — an ideologue endowed with the power to re-energize a political movement and the man who could reverse the course of what many on the right perceive to be decades of liberals’ cultural corrosion.
Pence the conciliator
Pillars of belief are well and good, but politics is a business that can bend principle. Pence’s time as Indiana governor pushed his conservative ideals to become more than just rhetoric, but there was also a backlash against them. When under attack, though, Pence did not double-down, as Trump has done. Instead, he negotiated on issues central to his conservative beliefs.
Take Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The measure, signed into law by Pence in March 2015, was a lighting rod for controversy. The law said that government may not “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” and was interpreted by many as a loophole to allow businesses to decline service to gay or transgender people on the grounds of religious freedom. The backlash from activists and businesses was swift, and the prospect of an economic boycott of the state forced Pence into signing a so-called “fix” to the law that specified businesses not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
The fix disappointed the bill’s strongest supporters, like Smith of the Indiana Family Institute. But Pence eventually succumbed to the economic pressure on the state. “He didn’t want to see you lose your job,” Smith said.
Another incident during the same period shows that when backed into a corner and exposed to public outcry, Pence the executive can compromise.
From 2014 to 2015, 181 people in and around Scott County, Indiana, contracted HIV, an outbreak tied to intravenous drug use in the area. Dirty needles were rife, but needle exchanges were illegal under Indiana law. So public health experts called on the governor’s office to help. Pence, who believed needle exchanges might do more to encourage risky behavior, spent weeks weighing the decision. Finally, in late March of 2015, he declared a public health emergency, overriding the needle exchange law.
While these decisions to act might seem like rudimentary responses to moments of crisis, they tell us something about how Pence balances pragmatism with ideology. Put under enough pressure, he cracks. They suggest that a President Pence could settle on moderate actions when faced with economic pressure or an outpouring of negative public opinion. Even ideologues read the papers and polls and feel the pinch of unpopularity.
Pence the politician
Pence has played a congenial second fiddle as vice president, going out of his way to stay out of the limelight even as other White House advisers have graced the covers of the nation’s magazines. It’s a strategy that vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein of Saint Louis University School of Law finds notable for its savvy.
“At one point early on, Pence was quoted as saying Cheney was his model, and I thought that was not a really smart thing for a vice president to be saying,” Goldstein said of remarks Pence made in September 2016 to ABC News. Given Trump’s sensitivities to being overshadowed and the perception by some that Dick Cheney was the puppeteer pulling George W. Bush’s strings, it seemed an ill-conceived aspiration. But by January 2017, Pence had changed his tune, pointing to George H.W. Bush as his vice presidential model. To Goldstein, this change is significant, an indication that Pence realized the value of taking a back-seat role in the administration.
Should dicier political times come, this adaptability might serve Pence well as the winds of Washington shift away from Trump. His steady-and-silent-as-a-rock persona seems proof of his political acumen, a persona calibrated to survive a White House split by competing alliances. If the Trump presidency is a war of attrition, Pence might be the best soldier in Washington; avoiding the snares of Russia high drama could prove to be what leads most directly to a Pence presidency.
Pence’s relatively low profile — he has taken foreign trips and is a congressional liaison for the White House without attracting too much attention — reminded me of commandment No. 1 of Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power,” a treatise popular in prison libraries: Never outshine the master. Pence, according to survey data from the American National Election Studies, is more popular among Republicans than the president, an unprecedented finding. All this quiet work-horsing might be in service to commandment No. 3: Conceal your intentions.
In May, Pence filed to establish a PAC — a move that was met with many raised eyebrows and just as many quotes from sources close to the vice president imploring the press not to read anything about Pence’s future political ambitions into it.
In the event of impeachment, Pence would likely be glad he started the PAC. Its innocent purpose — to support candidates who back Trump — also provides cover for Pence to develop allies in the party around the country, to establish his own network, and to cultivate a quiet persona not as Trump’s man, but as a figure all his own.
Pence the successor
If Pence were to go from vice president to accidental president, his administration would unfurl under the shadow of his predecessor. President Pence’s initial days and weeks in office would very likely be focused on a task similar to Gerald Ford’s after Richard Nixon resigned: coaxing the country through the trauma of a transfer of power.
Pence would need to find a way to shed Trump’s mantle without alienating the 45th president’s base. One option for his first few months: spend a great deal of energy trying to return a sense of normalcy and calm to a White House that has earned a reputation for infighting, disorganization and turbulent relationships with foreign leaders.
Pence is a far more predictable politician than Trump. As president, he would be more eager than Trump has been to reaffirm the view, previously thought to be conventional, of America as a willing party to NATO. Pence recently reassured NATO allies of America’s continued commitment to Article 5, a promise to treat an attack on any member nation as an attack on all — Trump neglected to do so at a summit of NATO leaders.2
A Pence ascendency to the Oval Office could also bring Republican talent in exile back into the fold. The Trump administration has had a difficult time finding candidates for even the highest positions; prominent names have recently turned down jobs to head the Justice Department’s civil division and the FBI. “My guess is there would be a lot more turnover in the White House,” Goldstein said. “A lot of the conventional Republicans, the people who were in the George W. Bush administration and who were getting ready to move up into a higher-level position in the next Republican administration but who might have been anybody-but-Trump people — I think some of those people might become part of a Pence administration.”
In the extraordinary event that Pence becomes president before Trump has served out his full term, the newly minted chief executive might do well to look to Gerald Ford — our most recent accidental president — for wisdom. Ford, forever Nixon’s man, held office for only two years and five months, consigned to history as having ended the nation’s “long national nightmare” but widely remembered for little else, the eternal second fiddle.
An accidental president is a still a president, though, steward of a somehow-still-precarious American experiment in self-government.
Ford was well aware of this when he took the oath of office — his very ascension to the presidency represented democracy at the extreme limits of its practice. There was a time when men and women could barely fathom rule by the populace, and Nixon’s acquiescence to its will was a stark reminder that the president is no king, but is in fact servant to the people.
Ford’s most famous line came in his oath-of-office speech — the “long national nightmare” bit — but other passages from that August day in 1974 hold particular resonance through the decades. “I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government, but civilization itself,” Ford said. “Our constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.” The powers of the presidency are immense, but they are not without their limits.
“Here the people rule,” Ford said. He knew it all too well.