It is a disagreeable aspect of modern presidential politics: Politicians who have no business running are convinced they should run while those actually qualified seem overwhelmed at the prospect. The latter may betray a sign of normalcy, but if they don’t run we wind up with too few accomplished and mature candidates and too many blowhards with little experience or knowledge. It’s this phenomenon — and the experience of the Obama presidency — that is leading Republicans to consider governors for their 2016 nominee. Recently, attention is turning to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
I caught up with him Monday afternoon in Union Station before he caught a train to New York to meet with fellow governors, another opportunity to roll out his Medicaid reform plan. When I asked him about a potential 2016 run, he looked almost sheepish. Glancing at his wife Karen across the table he said, “We’re just real, regular people. I’ve got a van with a dent in the back.” His wife, who seemed equally nonplussed by the thought of a Pence presidential run, added ruefully, “With 50,000 miles on it.” He’s certainly been asked this before, but he seemed genuinely surprised and overwhelmed. “I grew up with a corn field in my back yard,” Pence said. “I’m very humbled, but I think it has more to do with the progress of the people of Indiana.” He then reeled off a list of items his state has achieved since he took office — easily the bullet points on a campaign stump speech — “a growing economy, 5.7 percent unemployment, the fact that we’re recognized in education [reform].”
For most of the interview, he tried to keep his remarks Indiana-focused. I asked him how the move from Congress to the Indiana statehouse has changed his outlook. There is no sound-bite response. He paused, looked to the side for a few seconds and replied, “I’ve become a champion for state reform.” He recapped his remarks from earlier in the day at the American Enterprise Institute about his state Medicaid reform plan, saying “my focus is on results.” He then praised his state legislature as the “best in America” and described the contrast with Congress. “These people [in the state legislature] live in their communities. They are part-time legislators.” Not only does that put them on the front lines when things don’t get done but, Pence told me, “States can’t print money. I wasn’t able to complete the budget until the final revenue forecast came in.”
What he described sounds like a parallel universe to what goes on inside the Beltway. He recalled that after he was elected, he sat down with every member of the legislature individually to assess what he or she wanted and needed for the Hoosiers in the lawmaker’s district. “We work collaboratively,” he said. “But leadership matters. Anyone who ever looks to Congress to lead the national government is looking in the wrong place. The president is leading or the country isn’t being led.”
He recounted when the newly elected President Obama visited with GOP House members and began to talk about the stimulus. Five or six times he referred to “the bill negotiated in the House.” When it was Pence’s turn to speak he told the president, “Just about everyone here is praying for you. . . . You’ve used the phrase ‘the bill negotiated in the House.’ But, Mr. President, there is no bill negotiated in the House. No one here had any input.” Pence said the president looked taken aback; in the vote the next day the stimulus got zero GOP votes. His point is clear: A president who doesn’t engage Congress the way he engages the state legislature is going to run into a wall of opposition.
I turned to Common Core. Indiana pulled out of the Common Core group of 44 states and chose to develop its own standards. Since doing that, the governor has faced criticism from the right from those who see Common Core elements in the Indiana plan and from outside experts miffed that he’s made any changes. I ask him if it was worth the trouble. He has no doubt they did the right thing in part because it reaffirmed “the principle education is a state and local matter.” He recalled, “I was one of a handful of Republicans who opposed No Child Left Behind,” which, he concedes, wasn’t a popular move with a president of his own party. Nevertheless, he is emphatic about local control of schools: “I was willing then and I am willing now to take a strong stand.”
He also defended Indiana’s decision on practical grounds. “I am absolutely confident the new standards are better than Common Core and better than what Indiana had before.” He emphasized that 6,000 hours of work went in the “totally transparent process” and the result was commended by, among others, the former president of Purdue University, in part because additional levels of math were added. Indiana has been reforming its standards since 1999. “This is the first time we engaged higher education,” he said, noting that 10,000 high school graduates were requiring remedial help at state universities because their high school education did not prepare them for college. “We connected with college administrators and professors and classroom teachers,” he explained. “[We asked them] ‘What do you need them to know to start their [higher education]?’”
He shied away from suggesting that other states should follow Indiana. Pence insisted, “My focus is on Indiana.” When he decided Indiana would go its own way, he said his concern was, “Is it in the best interests of Hoosiers? It was based upon my belief doing so is right for the people of Indiana.”
But Pence has never been focused solely on domestic policy. His speech in Berlin last month stressed the need for a strong U.S. presence in Europe and concern about the administration’s failure to lead and check Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions. Unasked, he turned at the end of our conversation back to national security, recounting a weekend celebration in Indiana honoring the 20-year joint-training relationship between the Indiana National Guard and Slovak forces and the 10th anniversary of Slovakia’s entry into NATO. In that speech, he told the guests, including assembled troops, the ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the United States and the chief of defense of the Slovak Armed Forces:
Members of our Indiana National Guard and the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic deployed side-by-side in Afghanistan starting in 2011, serving under the command of a Slovak Armed Forces officer, provided a logistical training team to the Afghan National Army during a ten-month deployment. In total, members have been deployed together four times for this same mission. Our two militaries have shared over two hundred joint events over the course of the last twenty years to include noncommissioned officer development, flight training, fire support training, intelligence preparation of the battlefield training, and military decision making process training. Our partnership has reaped mutually beneficial rewards. From training best practices to achieving shared goals, the Indiana National Guard and the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic have grown exponentially as individual entities and as a resolute partnership.
In these uncertain times, with Russian aggression on the rise in Ukraine and instability in the Middle East, we note with firm conviction that NATO is first and foremost a defense alliance. . . .[O]urs is a partnership in the defense of freedom and democracy. May the good people of the Slovak Republic know that the people of Indiana and America will continue to stand with you, and all our NATO allies, as you stand for freedom and democracy in Europe.
As he got ready to catch his train, Pence said he thought it was important to reaffirm the relationship in the face of Russian aggression. (Slovakia, he reminded me, shares a border with Ukraine.)
Will he run in 2016? He appeared genuinely undecided, if not downright skeptical. But plainly he’s a governor immersed in state-led reform with a strong grasp of foreign affairs. The GOP could do worse, and it may very well do so unless the party reaches a consensus that bravado, ideology and confrontation only get the party and the country so far.