Mike Pence on Wednesday implored Republican voters to remember and heed their onetime hero, Ronald Reagan, and said that the party should not be based on the “personal grievances and performative outrage” of and for his former boss, Donald Trump.
“The truth is, the Republican Party did not begin on a golden escalator in 2015,” the former vice president said in a speech at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, which will hold the first-in-the-nation presidential primary in just five months. “We have come to a Republican time for choosing.”
Pence was referring to Reagan’s famous speech 59 years ago that became a touchstone for conservatives for decades to come, in which the former actor laid out his case for limited government conservatism. Pence on Wednesday warned that Trump-centered “populists” are just as dangerous as left-wing progressives, and that both were “fellow travelers on the same road to ruin.”
It’s unclear, though, whether invoking a longtime GOP icon will help Pence 34 years after Reagan left office. A new poll shows that Trump, who attempted a coup to remain in office despite losing reelection and is now under criminal prosecution in four separate cases, nevertheless remains the choice of 59% of GOP primary voters.
“I have my serious doubts. I’m sure there is a lane for more traditional conservatism. But it is a single lane in a multilane highway, dominated by Trumpist populism,” said Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “Even absent Trump, the populist wing is ascendant.”
Mike Murphy, a veteran GOP consultant who has worked for former Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush among others, said Pence’s appeal was certainly worth the effort. “Good for him,” he said, adding that it could resonate with many Republican voters. “My guess is a chunk will indeed agree.”
That hope was delusional, said a former Illinois congressman who actually ran against Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination and who saw Trump followers’ cult-like devotion firsthand.
“It’s not a ‘time for choosing’ for the party. The party already made their choice: angry, nativist, authoritarian populism,” said Joe Walsh, who broke with Trump soon after he took office in 2017. He added that Pence, while criticizing Trump now, had been making excuses for Trump’s words, actions and policies as his vice president.
“He’s also the worst possible guy to deliver this message because he sat at Trump’s knee for four years and smiled at all the ‘personal grievance and performative outrage’ that went on all around him,” Walsh said.
Reagan’s speech, delivered on behalf of 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, boosted his profile in the party, and led to his running for governor of California in 1966, where he served two terms, before eventually winning the presidency in 1980.
That half-hour address focused on his philosophical disagreement with Democrats and their efforts to spend government money to solve social problems like poverty. It became known as his “Time for Choosing” speech and a cornerstone of his political identity for the rest of his years.
For decades, Reagan’s ideology of lower taxes, less government and more personal responsibility were the stated goals of many Republicans — until Trump effectively replaced them with a so-called “America First” agenda that frequently translated into a demand for loyalty to and public support for him personally.
“Nothing Mike Pence says will resonate with today’s GOP,” said Jennifer Horn, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a prominent Trump critic. “Republican voters blame Pence for blocking their efforts to destroy peace and democracy in America. Pence himself spent four years feeding the beast of populism he’s now trying to defeat.”