In my Indianapolis Monthly profile of Mike Pence, which you can read here, I pointed out that Indiana’s new governor has taken “vocal conservative stands on just about every issue: foreign policy, fiscal policy, social matters, and more.” Yet the media continue to fixate on those social matters (e.g., Pence’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood). To me, that sells Pence-the-congressman short — even as it also makes Pence-the-candidate seem even more slippery.
Anyway, I wanted to review Pence’s fiscal bona fides, which seem especially relevant as he rolls out his first two-year budget at the State House. Pence became a congressman in 2000 — in the age of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative,” which, as Pence loved to point out, “ultimately [is] another way of saying ‘big-government conservative.”
Again and again, Pence fought for his small-government ideals. The only exception I found, and it’s a partial one, was the federal Farm Bill. Pence’s Sixth District, which covers much of southern Indiana, receives more Farm Bill money than any other district in the country. It created an obvious dilemma for Pence, and one of his staffers told me that, early on, at least, their office took a flexible tack. “Mike would talk about fighting over the size of the pie,” the aide told me, “but once the pie was set he’d fight to get his district as big a slice as he could.”
This method applied to the Farm Bill and to earmarks, as well. But Pence ultimately modified his approach, even though it meant working against his constituents’ interests. By the spring of 2008, he was refusing to vote for Farm Bill. “It has always been my ambition to support Indiana farmers,” Pence said. “But I’ve always sought to do that in a way that protects our federal budget and protects the American taxpayer at large.” Stands like this are why I suggested, in a previous blog post, that Pence has “a more consistent and coherent world-view . . . [than] other Bush-era conservatives like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell.”
Stands like this are also why Pence became the chairman of the powerful (and extremely conservative) Republican Study Committee. In fact, one source told me that Pence did such a bang-up job that the organization changed its term limits so he could stay in power. “I don’t believe the mission of the RSC is to achieve conservative legislation,” Pence has said. “I believe it is the objective of our committee to ensure that conservative values are given their proper weight with leadership as it seeks the equilibrium of getting a bill to 218 votes.”
(This, by the way, is one of many places where you can see why John Gregg, Pence’s gubernatorial opponent, ran such a poor campaign. Gregg loved attacking Pence for not passing bills — but far more telling was the reason he didn’t pass bills, with that reason being that Pence was a far-right legislator.)
Pence and the RSC caused plenty of trouble for the compassionate crowd. The best example came in 2005, when Pence made a very public demand that any Hurricane Katrina relief be offset by spending cuts. (It was an early version of what we’re seeing today with Hurricane Sandy.) Then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay called Pence in for a meeting — what Robert Novak described as “a closed-door auto-da-fe, with GOP leaders as the inquisitors and Pence as the heretic.”
That’s a pretty great description, but the Washington Post did Novak one better. After that meeting, the paper reported, the congressman “had the look of a hunted man.” Pence was scheduled to deliver a speech at the Young America Foundation. The topic? “Conservative leadership in Congress” and its “massive spending splurges.” But Pence had a change of heart. Instead, he told the crowd, “I believe in the men and women who lead the House of Representatives and the Senate. I see them as men and women of integrity and principle, who work every day to bring the ideals of our Founders into the well of the people’s house.” Then he left abruptly. According to the Post, Pence didn’t even stick around for the Q&A he’d agreed to, which left the Young America crew in a tough spot: “Unfortunately, the congressman will be unable to answer questions today,” the host said. “But we are going to have a door prize.”
Now, you can interpret this event in one of two ways: 1) Pence caved to Republican leadership; or 2) Pence was so good at needling Republican leadership that, eventually, they had to go nuclear on him. I’m inclined toward Option 2 — and not just because that makes Pence’s Young America speech a rare (and revealing) bit of unscripted drama. Pence never stopped needling. In 2010, he was one of very few Republicans to admit that attacking Democrats for their (alleged) cuts to Medicare was dumb and incoherent. Then there’s this, from Michael Grunwald’s excellent book The New New Deal:
[Eric] Cantor and Mike Pence were both part of the conservative Republican Study Committee as well as the leadership team. But as one aide put it, Pence rolled out of bed thinking about being a conservative, while Cantor woke up thinking about being a leader. Infrastructure reflected that difference. In leadership meetings, Cantor argued that the Republican stimulus alternative should go big on public works . . . Pence pushed back: Aren’t we supposed to be against government spending?
All this to say that when people portray Pence as a social crusader, they obscure an important point: he’s a crusader, full stop.
Or at least he was. But there’s one more thing worth noting here: more and more Republicans share Pence’s comprehensive ideology. He’s what the Pew Research Center calls a “Staunch Conservative.” In its political typology survey, Pew highlights “a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives . . . [who] take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues — on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns.” Yet Pew didn’t identify this bloc until recently, in 2011. In other words, as in so much else with the Republican party, Mike Pence was way out in front.