Vice President Mike Pence is at the centre of the US presidential race as the running mate of Donald Trump. The former Indiana governor’s journey to the white house began in July 2016 after Trump offered him the prized ticket.
Now, the 61-year-old Republican, who is also expected to win the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) nomination for the 2024 election, has a crucial job of convincing voters to vote for Trump to “make America great again. Again.”
Pence’s popularity as a devout Evangelical in the Republican party is linked to bringing in key religious votes in Trump’s campaign. Pence was raised Catholic and has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
Often described as “calm” and “measured”, Pence is seen as an insurance policy for the conservatives and Evangelical Christians against Trump’s brash and hasty decisions and policy makings. He worked as a conservative radio show host in the 1990s before entering the Congress.
Before his run as Governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017, the Vice President had 12 years of legislative experience as the member of US House of Representatives under his belt. With solid ties to the conservative party and support from Evangelicals, Pence is considered one of the safest choices for the Republican Party for the White House.
Courting Controversies: Religious Freedom and Abortion
The then Governor Pence’s conservative stance is best described through his most controversial move in signing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 2015. The law allowed businesses in Indiana to cite their religious freedom as a legal defence. Pence described the law in a Wall Street Journal article, stating the legislature “ensures that Indiana law will respect religious freedom and apply the highest level of scrutiny to any state or local governmental action that infringes on people’s religious liberty.”
The law led to public outcry by the LGBTQ community who argued that it gave “license to discriminate” against gay, bisexual, transsexual and queer people based on religion. CEOs of major companies including Apple, PayPal and other business leaders criticised the legislature and issued non-discriminatory protections.
Alarmed by the economic losses threatening his state, Pence later signed an amendment specifying that it will not authorise discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The move however hurt religious conservatives and Republican politicians, who felt the lawmakers had given in to the ‘radical left’.
“It’s like paying ransom to a captor, and will put people of faith in the crosshairs of gay activists who will use this new legislation as a weapon to force people of faith to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies and other activities that violate their deeply held religious beliefs,” Brian Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
A year later, Pence signed one of the strictest abortion laws in the country — House Enrolled Act 1337 in the Indiana General Assembly. The law imposed restrictions on women seeking abortions, including in cases of pre-determined disabilities.
“HEA 1337 will ensure the dignified final treatment of the unborn and prohibits abortions that are based only on the unborn child’s sex, race, colour, national origin, ancestry, or disability, including Down syndrome,” Pence said in a statement.
The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 struck down the law stating that provisions in the Indiana abortion law were “unconstitutional.” Citing Roe vs Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, it upheld a 2017 federal court decision that stated, “The United States Supreme Court has stated in categorical terms that a state may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy before viability.”
The ‘Pro-life’ or anti-abortion stance has been an integral part of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Even though Trump is known for being on both sides of the fence on the issue of reproductive rights with interview recordings from the 1999s showing Trump saying he was “very pro-choice,” Pence’s firm anti-abortion stance is well acknowledged among the evangelical community.
This is best understood through the annual March for Life rally which was headlined by Pence in 2019. The event was first in its kind as it was the first time a vice-president delivered a speech and the president appeared via video at the rally. Pence criticised the Supreme Court judgement on abortion rights, stating: “We’re the Pences, and we’re pro-life,” he said, standing with his wife Karen.
At the vice-presidential debate with Democrat Kamala Harris last month, Pence said he did not know how Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump nominee and ‘rushed’ Supreme Court-appointed, would rule on abortion rights. However, he reiterated that he and Trump were opposed to them.
“I couldn’t be more proud to serve as vice-president to a president who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life,” Pence said. “I’m pro-life. I don’t apologise for it.”
Covid-19 factor, race and ‘tariff war’
As US reels under the Covid-19 pandemic with more than 8.6 million confirmed cases and over 225,000 deaths, the highest death toll in the world, Pence who leads the president’s coronavirus task force has been criticised for its poor handling of the pandemic amid Trump’s re-election campaign.
Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris termed the Trump administration’s handling of the health crisis as “the greatest failure of any presidential administration” in her debate with Pence.
The vice-president, who continues to be on the road for in-person campaigning despite several close aides including his chief of staff testing positive, defended his administration’s response to Harris and stated: “our nation’s gone through a very challenging time this year.”
At a rally on Sunday in Kinston, North Carolina, the state and its 15 Electoral College votes crucial for Trump in his bid to win re-election, Pence lauded supporters for “standing firm” for Trump. Pence avoided addressing rising positive cases among his staff and dismissed Democrat Joe Biden’s warnings on the Covid-19 crisis as “gloom and doom.”
Pence’s decision to not adhere to quarantine rules is being criticised as violation to his own task force’s recommendation. Apart from quarantine norms, other examples such as the Rose Garden event held in September to introduce Judge Amy Coney Barrett was reported to have flouted public-health safety regulations and was cited as Pence’s duplicity on the issue. Attended by more than 150 people, 11 tested positive after the event.
Apart from the Covid-19 crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement and related protests which gained momentum after the custodial deaths of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and George Floyd in Minnesota brought national and international limelight on the issue of racial injustice. The issue and subsequent protests have become a bone of contention between the Republicans and Democrats.
As Trump drew flak for calling the protests “riots”, Pence again smoothened over the outrage over his remarks with appeasing statement stating, “I want everyone to know who puts on the uniform of law enforcement every day, President Trump and I stand with you.”
Pence gave no nod towards acknowledging systematic racism in the police force and said, “We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, proving public safety and supporting our African American neighbours.”
One of the central motifs of Trump administration’s re-election bid is the role of imposing tariffs on China under its ‘Make America Great’ campaign agenda. Both Trump and Pence have been calling imposition of tariffs to safeguard jobs and workers as one of America’s biggest win against China’s growing economic dominance.
While the tariffs against China caused the trade deficit in goods with China to fall in 2019, the resultant ‘tariff war’ caused the overall US economic growth to slow down from 3 per cent to 2.2 per cent due to trade uncertainty.
The Trump campaign’s ‘Promises Kept’ site which lists all the vows fulfilled under its presidency, mentions repealing Obamacare and signing in an executive order declaring it the policy of the US government to protect people with preexisting conditions. While Pence often mentions “plans” to improve health care and to protect “preexisting conditions” for all Americans, there is no proper explanation given to this.
A further look into the plans shows that the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare already protects Americans with preexisting conditions. As Trump tries to eliminate the ACA, experts fear those protections will likely be overturned. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned “130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions will lose the ACA’s lifesaving protections and 23 million Americans will lose their health coverage entirely.”
The comprehensive health care proposal once promised by Trump, however, continues to remain unexplained amid the global pandemic. A recent report stated that Pence had ordered the country’s top disease control agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to use its emergency powers to seal the US borders despite scientists warnings that such steps would not slow down the pandemic.
It resulted in the expulsion of nearly 150,000 children and adults from the country without due process. Experts stated that the decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ was politically motivated under its anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia. Pence’s spokesperson has denied the directing CDC on closure of borders as “false.”
In a less conspicuous role, Pence has headed the US space policy and renewed National Space Council under its rebuilding of the space programme. He helped establish the space programme.