Is Mike Pence Chickening Out?

Nothing is sadder than an elite athlete who develops an irrevocable case of the yips. Something happens to them on the field of play that causes them to flinch every time a similar situation develops again, which makes them essentially useless – a shell of their former selves. The talent is still there but mentally they are gone.

By all accounts, the fight over the RFRA has given Mike Pence an irrevocable case of the yips. A guy who was always considered to be politically talented, a real fighter, even if he sometimes rubbed his House colleagues the wrong way by being a little preachy and self-important. Big things were expected of Mike Pence.

Like a prize boxing prospect, Pence’s career was extremely carefully managed from the get go. He carefully avoided any of the internecine leadership fights that have roiled the Republican caucus in Congress over the last 15 years, preferring to pontificate from the sidelines rather than challenge for any contested position. When he ran for Governor in Indiana, he stepped into a huge leadership vacuum in the Indiana GOP and sailed through an unopposed primary. In the general election, he won an unexpectedly close election by keeping his head down and intentionally toning down his conservative rhetoric.

Then, when the Indiana RFRA bill came under fire, Mike Pence got knocked to the mat for the first time. For the first time in his political career, he became the focal point of intense negative public reaction and criticism. And by all accounts, Pence hasn’t been the same since. You could see it in the way he dithered endlessly on the sidelines of Indiana’s primary and then entered a half-hearted endorsement of Cruz. The conservative warrior people once thought existed is gone, if he ever was even there.

Pence knows that if he runs for re-election in Indiana, he is likely to lose. It is one thing to run in a year where it’s Romney v. Obama – running in a year where Trump heads the Republican ticket, and given his own unpopularity, Pence knows that his chances of re-election are lower than 50/50. Pence still wants to have a chance at the title belt (Presidency) but he knows that an electoral loss in 2016 would greatly diminish his chances at that. Meanwhile, if he runs as Trump’s VP, the loss would not necessarily be placed on his head but rather on Trump’s.

This is the only calculation that makes sense for Pence as to why he would join Trump’s ticket as his running mate. Nobody else who has anything remotely valuable to lose politically is in the slightest bit interested in being on deck for the sinking of this particular ship. Pence, on the other hand, is facing a choice between trying to avert a loss on his own or hanging on to the coattails of someone else’s loss and then throwing up his hands later and saying, “Well, it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t drag Trump across the line!”

As Trump campaigns with Pence in Indiana tonight, and (probably) announces Pence as his running mate, just remember what it is the Pence is really doing here.