Every time President Donald Trump shames the office, which is often, the whispers grow a little louder. "Mike Pence is sitting pretty."
Who can doubt it? The chances of the ultra-religious, arch-conservative from Indiana having the presidency tumble into his lap before 2020 get better by the week.
That being the case, the Vice-President deserves a lot of scrutiny. But he isn't getting it. For one thing he's charisma's flipside – bland and wearisome. For another, he intentionally avoids the television spotlight, rarely sitting down with the talking heads. For another, all the oxygen is sucked out of any and every room by his boss.
But the low profile of Mike Pence – Mr. Dense to some former congressional colleagues – shouldn't be taken to mean he is weak or ineffective. Or that to progressive America he isn't frighteningly Neanderthal.
The Veep, who has called himself "Rush Limbaugh on decaf," has been quietly building a power base. He has hard-core conservative beliefs that are a good fit for today's Republicans. He has the religious right on board his train. He has the money men, the party's billionaires, in his corner. They include the party powerbrokers Charles and David Koch of hyper-rich Koch Industries.
Mr. Pence curried their favour years ago with his stance that climate change is a myth. He shamelessly kowtowed to the Kochs – and still does – and it has paid off. The Pence-Koch alliance backbones White House policy-making. The network includes no less than half the cabinet, with the likes of CIA director Mike Pompeo and Environmental Protection Agency boss Scott Pruitt in the vanguard.
By using the same fan-boy formula, Mr. Pence has also gained the favour of Mr. Trump. Being so pious, he isn't exactly Mr. Trump's cup of tea. After a group of visitors met with the Vice-President, Mr. Trump asked them, "Did Mike make you pray?" As recounted by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, when the subject of gay people came up one day, Mr. Trump said of Mr. Pence, "Don't ask that guy – he wants to hang them all." But Mr. Pence is a bridge to the Christian right, to Tea Party types, and Mr. Trump can count on him. "You've restored American credibility on the world stage," Mr. Pence once said of him with a straight face.
Besides being a climate-change disbeliever, Mr. Pence has taken hardline stances on homosexuality, feminism, abortion, evolution, racial integration, health care and foreign policy. Comedian Billy Crystal once joked of him that "this guy looks like someone who chased one of the Von Trapp children into the Alps."
Mr. Pence, who declared an ambition to become president while in high school and who served as governor of Indiana, is positioning himself to succeed the current President either way – in normal fashion or via the impeachment route.
The Mueller inquiry into Russian election meddling might not get Mr. Trump. The growing belief that he is unfit mentally and emotionally for the office may not be enough. The fact that the party risks an electoral humiliation under him might not do it. But if it's not one of the three, it could well be a combination of them all. Things will reach the point where the party is looking for an excuse to be rid of him. It could come in the form of an obstruction-of-justice finding.
Beyond orthodox Republicans, Mr. Pence is hardly a big hit. In the media, he is seen as gutless. He didn't respond to Mr. Trump's alleged scatalogical putdown of poor countries. He has failed to take exception to any of his behaviour bordering on racism.
But being the moral opposite of the President – Mr. Pence refuses to dine with another woman unless his wife is present – has appeal in the party. With the Bible as his guide, he would restore respect – in the behavioural sense – for the office. He could help minimize losses. It might be like Gerald Ford in the wake of Richard Nixon. Mr. Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, but narrowly.
Mr. Pence is by no means dense in being sycophantic while serving the mercurial Mr. Trump. He knows that if he offends him he could be dropped off the Trump ticket for the 2020 campaign. Better to curry favour now and hope that by 2020, there is no Trump ticket.