INDIANAPOLIS – Somewhere in a very, very faraway place, Michael Deaver and “the fellas” had to be smiling.
For here was an earnest disciple of their former boss (President Reagan) in Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, getting ready for questions from Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace. And millions of conservatives saw this graphic:
“Pence’s Record as Indiana Governor: Cut taxes dramatically; 1st state to pull out of Common Core; Increase in private school vouchers; $400M on new highway projects.”
An image guy like Deaver would have been exultant about the visual treatment. Here on the screen is someone we not only know so well, but we could practically say his lines before they left the governor’s lips.
“Is there a governing philosophy in everything you’ve been trying to do?” Wallace asked.
“Well, I really think there is,” Pence began. “It’s why we say Indiana is a state that works. And the results speak for themselves. We have the lowest unemployment rate in the Midwest. We have one of the fastest growing labor forces in the country and our state is prospering even during these uncertain times because for some time here in Indiana, we’ve been just putting common sense principles into practice, living within our means, letting people keep more of what they earn, promoting economic freedom like the right to work. And that’s why you’re seeing increased investment in Indiana, more jobs in Indiana, and I’m awful proud of the progress that people of Indiana have made.”
The Fox anchor eventually popped his POTUS cork.
“All of which brings us to the possibility of your running for president, sir,” Wallace said. “I just happened to notice that next month in May you’re going to be speaking before the Wisconsin State GOP convention and in June you’re going to be speaking before the Alabama state GOP convention. Forgive me for being a little bit cynical here, but it seems like you’re leaving the door wide open to running for president.”
“Well, Chris, honestly,” Pence began, “my focus is entirely on the future of the people of Indiana. We’ll let my future take care of itself.”
The strict talking points and programmed moments we’ve watched and heard from Pence over the past few years now come into focus. The Indiana governorship is his launching pad. Pence sticks to the script, and his modest policy achievements (built on the foundation forged by Gov. Mitch Daniels) become the conservative beacon.
While U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul say things deemed controversial to the mainstream (do your own Internet search), Pence religiously sticks to the script. He goes to the shooting range, but he doesn’t hold a gun upside down at an NRA convention.
Speaking to the national NRA convention in Indianapolis last Friday, Pence kept the red meat in the Governor’s Mansion refrigerator. “The cure for what ails this country will come more from our nation’s state capitals than it ever will from our nation’s capital,” Pence said in comments deemed to be the beginnings of a second Jeffersonian movement. “It’s important to remember that the states created the federal government, the federal government didn’t create the states.”
Instead of guns, he talked butter. “We have tax cuts scheduled every year until 2021,” Pence said. “We’ve cut the income tax. We’ve cut the corporate tax to the second lowest in the country. And we ended death taxes in Indiana, once and for all last year.”
A presidential run in 2016? “If I only had 12 years left to live, I’d want to live it as a member of Congress, because that was the 12 longest years of my life,” he joked.
The crowd lapped it up. So did the pundits. The U.S. News & World Report observed that Pence was the one who emerged from the gathering with the “most buzz.”
“Pence might have given the most 2016-pitch-style-speech so far,” tweeted Jim Geraghty, a reporter for the conservative National Review.
As I have before, Wallace circled around the governor and tried to pierce the script.
“I don’t want to beat a dead horse. But I guess I’ll hit it one more time,” Wallace said. “Back in 2012 you were thinking about running for president. You decided not to. Does that still beat inside you?”
He found rhetorical Pence Kevlar.
“Well, let me be honest with you, I’m always humbled and flattered any time I’m mentioned for the highest office in the land,” Pence said. “But I honestly think much of that talk is the result of the progress the people of Indiana have been making. I’ll take the compliment to heart, but I will defer it to the progress the people of Indiana have made and we’ll stay focused here at home.”
While the Pence team will never admit it because they know it won’t help him on the Statehouse third floor, it appears the 2016 presidential strategy has been in place all along. The advance Berlin speech script into the hands of Fox News earlier this month was quite revealing.
It appears more and more likely we’ll get to watch this script play out in Iowa, where evangelical populists Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won in 2008 and 2012.
Howey, a former Elkhart Truth reporter, publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.