President Mike Pence? The question is way ahead of where we are. There's no solid reason to expect that President Trump will leave office before his term is done, whether by resignation, impeachment or the untried mechanism of the 25th amendment.
But that hasn't stopped anyone from talking about it — from Republicans wistful for the days of a functional White House to Democrats trying to guess which unpalatable future would be worse for their battered party.
And the answer should be straightforward. Pence would be an improvement on grounds of simple competence. He would make the country safer. Under a President Pence, Americans would have less cause to fear that a blundering president might lead us into war with North Korea or Iran.
Progressives would find almost nothing to like in Pence's domestic policies. There's no sugarcoating that. He would be the most conservative president of modern times — easily more conservative than Trump, more even than Ronald Reagan, the right's patron saint.
His economic views are in line with orthodox Republicanism: lower taxes, smaller government, fewer regulations. Pence's positions on social issues spring from Christian conservatism: He's fiercely opposed to abortion, gay marriage and almost any expansion of rights for gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Despite all that, unlike the president, he has read the Constitution and understands its meaning. He would be less likely than Trump to try to pressure the FBI to drop an investigation, to take one example.
He has even defended freedom of the press. He was coauthor of a bill to protect journalists from being compelled to identify their sources, and he founded a bipartisan press freedom caucus — along with, of all people, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Glendale), now one of the top congressional investigators pursuing Trump.
"He's a person of real integrity," said Rick Boucher, a former House member from Virginia who was the Democratic coauthor of the bill to shield journalists. "He's very conservative, especially on social issues. But he does have respect on the other side of the aisle. He's very serious about public policy, and willing to work with Democrats where there's common purpose."
(That doesn't mean Boucher is ready to endorse his old colleague for president. "I was a strong Obama supporter," he said. "I won't sleep easy until there's a Democrat in the White House.")
To be sure, Pence already has questions to answer about his short tenure as vice president.
After Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Pence vigorously parroted the White House's initial explanation that Comey was cashiered based on a recommendation from the Justice Department. That wasn't true — and Pence may have known it wasn't true at the time.
Pence has also maintained that he didn't know Trump's first national security advisor, Michael T. Flynn, was under investigation by the FBI when he was appointed. That denial may turn out to be true. Even though Pence was formally the chairman of Trump's transition, he wasn't in the president-elect's inner circle when the initial staffing decisions were made. There's plenty of evidence that even now, Trump aides spend much of their time hiding important facts from each other.
In any case, the FBI's investigation of Flynn is likely to bring any discrepancies to light. (In which case: President Paul Ryan? That's a matter for another column.)
As a matter of pure politics, it's impossible to predict whether a President Pence could improve GOP prospects in the 2018 congressional election or win reelection himself in 2020.
But Pence represents a slice of his own party, the social conservative right, which has never won a presidential nomination, let alone a general election. (George W. Bush ran with their support, as did Mitt Romney, but neither was as rooted among social conservatives as Pence.) He'd have a lot of work to expand his appeal beyond the GOP base, to attract independent Trump loyalists who might blame him for their man's downfall, or spurn him as the kind of establishment politician they abhor.
And, if he were to become president, he'd come under immediate pressure from those Trump loyalists to pardon his predecessor for any crimes committed in office or during the campaign. The last time that happened, when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard M. Nixon in 1974, it left the new president vulnerable to a Democratic challenger.
It's tempting, of course, for partisan Democrats to say: Let Republicans continue to struggle in the mess Trump makes. Why give them a chance to right their ship? The worse the better.
But that ignores the risks that would come from allowing Trump to continue exercising the powers of the presidency in both law enforcement and foreign policy. For the next three years, given the limited alternatives, I'd opt for President Pence — the sooner the better.
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