President Trump and Vice President Pence. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Mike Pence is denying reports that he is positioning himself to run for president in 2020 if, for some reason, Donald Trump falls by the wayside or decides that one term is enough. The vice president's denial was so over-the-top — "disgraceful and offensive," he called the New York Times article — that had he been on a polygraph, he would have frizzled the wires and blown the circuits. The only thing wrong about the article was its timing. Pence's presidential ambitions are nothing new. He's been running his entire life.

Pence is the very personification of the career politician. With the exception of a few years doing talk radio and television shows, he has done nothing but run for office, winning all but the first two times. In Congress, he set out to shimmy up the leadership of his party — chairman of the Republican Study Committee, etc. — finally running for Indiana governor in 2012 and then, with all humility, becoming Trump’s running mate. Pence is not a man to look a gift horse in the mouth. He’s got his eye on 2020.

In the meantime, Pence has become a parlor game in certain circles: If President Trump leaves office before his term is up — if either lightning or Robert S. Mueller III strikes — would it be a good thing for the nation? In other words, who’s worse — Trump or Pence?

From ‘I need loyalty’ to ‘Witch Hunt’: Trump’s second 100 days, in his words and ours

This is a hard one. Trump is a menace, both ignorant and chaotic. His saving grace is his incompetence. In his first six months in office, he has made a hash of our foreign policy, set back efforts to contain global warming, exploited public land and depopulated the State Department. But these efforts — as bad as they might be — have been so far confined to the margins. Trump has not passed any major legislation or, for that matter, built any walls.

On the other hand, his most significant and appalling contribution has been to normalize lying as an ordinary tool of the presidency. He has ghettoized truth, confining it to something characterized as the lying and disloyal mainstream media. He lies for purpose and he lies just for the hell of it. His lying is such that it ought to be a mental ailment. Call him politically insane.

That is not Pence. He is predictable, steadfast and experienced, but not conventional. His views, especially regarding social and cultural issues, are to the right of the right. He is famously antiabortion, recommends abstinence as the entire key to sex education and has taken the unique view that condoms are useless in AIDS prevention. As for global warming, back in 2000 he said it "is a myth."

In 2002, Pence took to the floor of the House to declaim on evolution. Like many of its opponents, he misused the term "theory," making it seem like a guess or a speculation. In science, a theory is an explanation of how things work. This is quite different from what Pence cited as a comparison — "that God created man in his own image." That's religion and not a theory — and that's a fact.

Rex Tillerson is a huge disappointment

To anyone other than an adamant social conservative, Pence is shockingly unreasonable. But he is also shockingly hypocritical. Throughout his career, he has billboarded himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order." But what about Trump is any of those? Trump is a virtual pagan. He has never been ideologically nor culturally conservative and is a Republican of convenience only. Nonetheless, Pence not only leaped into Trump's arms but rebuked him only once — for his "Access Hollywood" crack — and never for what he said about Mexicans, Muslims or the disabled, or, for that matter, how he denigrated his primary-election opponents. Pence is all faith and no morality.

So now Pence stands to Trump’s side, his head nodding at every inanity. He is the cardboard cutout for a soulless and opportunistic Republican Party, a display to put in the window of some Trump souvenir shop. In a sense, he is worse than the man he serves. Trump is a child — undisciplined, capricious and self-involved. Pence is none of those things. Trump knows nothing. Pence knows better.

So who would be worse? To me, this is like the Iran-Iraq War. I cannot pick a side and, to my relief, I don’t have to. But if I were Trump, I’d keep an eye on that nodding head over my shoulder. Pence professes loyalty to Trump, but when it comes to principles, he’s not even loyal to himself.

Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

Police officers applaud a line by U.S. President Donald Trump (R) as he delivers remarks about his proposed U.S. government effort against the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, to a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials at the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, New York, U.S. July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (Jonathan Ernst)

Read more from Richard Cohen's archive.

Read more on this topic:

Sarah Posner: Is Mike Pence betting it will all come crashing down on Trump?

Erik Wemple: Why is Vice President Pence so bothered by the New York Times’s reporting?

Ed Rogers: The New York Times stumbles on the way to 2020

Dana Milbank: ‘President Pence’ is sounding better and better

Richard Cohen: Trump doesn’t embody what’s wrong with Washington. Pence does.