The Democrats' favorite party game these days is guessing whether they would be better off politically with a full four years of Donald Trump in the White House or with some kind of political upheaval that would produce a President Mike Pence. It's the old quandary of dealing with the devil they know versus the devil they don't know.
Or, to be more precise, the dangerously ignorant, erratic, boorish narcissist they know versus the smugly pious tool of the Koch brothers they don't know.
Trump is such a disaster that Republicans who care about the republic and care about the future of their own party — like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker and Arizona's two senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake — are now openly ridiculing their president's policies and personality. McCain decried Trump's "half-baked, spurious nationalism." Flake has called Trump's behavior in office "reckless, outrageous, and undignified." And Corker called Trump a "constant non-truth-telling" person who is "debasing" the presidency and the country.
These traditional conservatives are devastatingly accurate in their assessment of Trump, but each of them is nearing the end of his political career. Very few of the Republicans on Capitol Hill who will be seeking reelection have been even mildly critical of their president and, until they do reject him, the idea Trump will be impeached is a liberal's pipe dream.
The other means of kicking Trump out of office is invoking the 25th amendment to the Constitution through which the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could declare Trump incapable of carrying out his duties. That seems even less likely than impeachment, even though Trump proves every day that, both temperamentally and intellectually, he is not up to the job.
Nevertheless, Democrats continue to speculate. Trump or Pence? Who would be the most advantageous adversary to face in the political trench warfare leading up to the 2020 presidential campaign?
Anyone interested in that question would do well to read Jane Mayer's recent in-depth profile of Pence in the New Yorker. Mayer reports that Trump calls Pence a vice president straight from central casting. The former Indiana governor projects the stolid, square-jawed rectitude of early 20th century Republican presidents Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. In demeanor, he could not be further from his boss, yet he has been loyal to Trump to the point of obsequiousness. As Mayer writes, Pence "has dutifully stood by the president, mustering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan."
But it is important to understand that, despite his public bleats of blind loyalty, Pence has been far more than a sheep. Arguably, the actual policies of the Trump administration have been shaped more by Pence than by Trump himself. Many have wondered how Trump, the allegedly populist, philosophically elastic ex-Democrat, ended up assembling the most rigidly conservative, pro-business Cabinet since Ronald Reagan, or maybe Calvin Coolidge. The answer is that it was Pence who led the pre-inauguration process of staffing the new administration.
And, in that process, it mattered very much that Pence is a favorite of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. Arguably the most powerful and influential funders of anti-government, anti-tax, anti-environment causes and candidates, the Kochs sat out the 2016 presidential election because they saw the choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton as a choice between "cancer or a heart attack." They were pleased as punch with the elevation of Pence and are certainly even more pleased that the vice president helped usher into government so many people who are eagerly serving the economic interests of billionaires, big corporations and the fossil fuel industry.
"If Pence were to become president for any reason, the government would be run by the Koch brothers — period," Rhode Island's Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse told Mayer. "He's been their tool for years."
It is hard to imagine that the Kochs could ask for much more than they already have gotten, although Pence might work better with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate than has Trump. Trump makes enemies among his supposed allies; Pence would pass legislation.
So, is it better for Democrats to have Trump bungling the conservatives' billionaire-coddling agenda and exacerbating the ruptures in his party? Perhaps, but it may also be that with the news media continuously distracted by Trump's daily provocations and general personality disorder, his administration's crusade against environmental regulations, consumer protection, public lands and civil rights is getting too little notice.
With Pence as president, there would be no distractions and no illusions.