Trump’s challengers face toxic dilemma of creating distance while converting supporters

When the news formally broke on Wednesday night that the Republicans had captured the House of Representatives in last week’s midterm elections, former Vice President Mike Pence had little time to celebrate.

At a televised town hall meeting hosted by CNN, where he planned to hawk his new memoir entitled “So Help Me God”, he found himself on the receiving end of a slew of complex questions that will dog every step he takes should he choose to enter the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

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First came the easy stuff: given that in his memoir he belatedly accuses Donald Trump of engaging in “reckless” behaviour on January 6th 2021 as a mob of the former President’s conspiracy theorists scoured the halls of Congress threatening to kill him, would Mr Pence back the efforts of his ex-boss to return to the Oval Office in 2024?

Again belatedly, the former Vice President finally conceded that he would not. “As I’ve travelled all over the country…people want us to get back to the policies of the Trump/Pence administration”, he posited. “But the American people are looking for new leadership…that will unite our country around the highest ideals”. Pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper specifically to say that his backing for Mr Trump is off the table, he said, “I honestly believe we’re going to have better choices”.

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Complexity abounded later in the encounter, when Mr Pence was asked why he had campaigned on behalf of several Republican midterm candidates who had adhered themselves firmly to Mr Trump’s election lies. “You know better than anyone….what those election lies can mean, in terms of crowds being incited” suggested Mr Tapper to a man whose memoir accuses Mr Trump of endangering the lives of Pence family members. The response was circuitous: “I’m a christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order. But I’m a Republican…it didn’t mean that I agree with every statement or every position the candidates….have taken, but I was pleased to do it”.

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Former Vice President Mike Pence sits for an interview with the Associated Press, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Former Vice President Mike Pence is one of those tipped to challenge his former boss for the 2024 Republican nomination (PHOTO: AP Photo/John Minchillo)

More on US midterms 2022

The town hall served as a preview of what is to come, given that Mr Pence dropped several fresh hints that he may challenge Mr Trump and other Republican presidential aspirants for the party’s 2024 nomination. Questions about his decision to stand loyally alongside Mr Trump through the entirety of what he now calls an administration that “did not end well” are certain to become an inconvenience to him.

Other potential candidates, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will similarly need to produce explanations of their own behaviour in ways that distance themselves from Mr Trump without alienating his powerful voting block. It will prove a difficult needle to thread.

Mr Pence’s book is not the only new tome that arrived in the nation’s bookshops this week. Michelle Obama has gone straight to number one on the nation’s best-seller lists with “The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times” in which she “shares practical wisdom and powerful strategies for staying hopeful and balanced in today’s highly uncertain world”.

Her publisher claims the book engages in a “frank and open dialogue with readers, considering the questions many of us wrestle with”. But there is at least one question out there upon which the former first lady continues to demur. Does she hope that President Joe Biden will seek four more years in the White House, especially in light of the Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the midterms?

It’s a yes or no question, but it evinces an evasive response. “I will have to see”, she told viewers of ABC’s “Good Morning America” earlier this week. “I think that’s a personal decision that he and his family have to take”, she said. Citing her own experience inside White House walls she promised not “to be one of the millions of people weighing in on what he should do”. As to whether she has any political aspirations of her own, she said she “detests” the question, but answered with a simple “no”.

On either side of America’s polarised divide, political figures are now in a quandary. They know they will be challenged about the leadership of their respective political parties, and whether they want to be stuck with Mr Biden and Mr Trump or are ready to move on.

The most honest approach of the week came from Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who, notably, is not currently on a book-tour. Asked the inevitable question about whether Mr Trump’s decision to enter the presidential race will help or hinder the party, his response was terse: “I don’t have a dog in that fight”.

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