Commentary: Hoosier on a conservative mission
WASHINGTON -- On a midweek afternoon in February 2009, a month into the Obama presidency, Republican Rep. Mike Pence arrived at Columbus in his east-central Indiana district for a town hall meeting, the sort of event that usually attracted a few dozen constituents. Surprised to see the hallway outside the room crowded with people, "their arms folded and brows furrowed," Pence shouted down the hall to an aide, asking him to get a janitor to open the room. The aide shouted back that the room was open -- and overflowing. Congress had just passed the stimulus (Pence voted no) and Hoosiers were stimulated to anger. Soon the tea party would be simmering.
Five months earlier, on a Friday, TARP had been proposed. The original three-page legislation sought $700 billion instantly, no time for questions; Pence's staff figured the cost would be about a billion dollars a word. On Saturday, Pence announced his opposition, but thought the bill would pass the House 434-1. On Monday, however, other members started approaching him, almost furtively, "like a secret society." A week later, the House rejected TARP, 205-228.
Four days later, the House passed TARP's second, 451-page, pork-swollen iteration, 263-171. That weekend, Pence, who voted no, was at a Boy Scout jamboree at the Henry County Fairgrounds. A man approached who had no scout there but wanted to thank Pence for opposing TARP. The man said that although he had lost his job the day before, "I can get another job but I can't get another country."
On Sept. 12, 2009, Pence was invited to address the first national tea party event, on the National Mall. Coming from his daughter's cross-country meet in Virginia, he parked at his office, walked out of the west front of the Capitol and "my knees buckled": The Mall was as crowded as the Columbus hallway had been seven months earlier.
On Nov. 21, 2003, Pence's third year in Congress, the House was about to vote on the Bush administration's proposal to add a prescription drug entitlement to Medicare. In a Wall Street Journal editorial the day before, Newt Gingrich had excoriated "obstructionist conservatives" who "always find reasons to vote no." Some recalcitrant Republican members, whose reasons for saying no to enlargements of the welfare state are conservatism, were brought to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for presidential pressure. Pence told the president he was going from the White House to his daughter's 10th birthday party, and he said he opposed the new entitlement because he wanted to be welcome at her 30th, which he might not be if, by deepening the entitlement crisis, he produced higher taxes and a lower standard of living. Early the next morning, Speaker Dennis Hastert disgracefully prolonged the House vote for 2 hours and 52 minutes, until 5:53 a.m., time enough to separate enough conservatives from their convictions. When Hastert asked Pence what it would take to win his vote, Pence replied: Means test the entitlement.
Impossible, said Hastert. Two Republican congressmen who, like Pence, that night stuck to their conviction that America has quite enough unfunded entitlements have risen -- Pennsylvania's Sen.-elect Pat Toomey and South Carolina's Sen. Jim DeMint.
To those who say conservatives should set aside social issues and stress only economic ones, Pence replies: Economic problems are urgent, but social problems remain important in a way that blurs the distinction between social and economic issues. With the fluency of a former talk radio host, he says: "You would not be able to print enough money in a thousand years to pay for the government you would need if the traditional family continues to collapse." This is, he says, "Moynihan writ large," referring to the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's preoccupation with out-of-wedlock births, which now are 41 percent of all American births.
Pence's district borders Ohio, which provided the only president who came directly from the House (James Garfield, 1881). Fifty-one and just elected to his sixth term, Pence, outgoing Republican Conference chairman, says he has always thought six is about enough. He says he might run for governor in 2012. The Republican incumbent, Mitch Daniels, who is term limited, might be a presidential candidate, and one such candidate might be enough from Indiana, which has provided only one president (Benjamin Harrison, 1889-1893). But if you have read this far, you know why many tea partiers and social conservatives -- essentially distinct cohorts -- are urging Pence to run for president, and why, although he probably won't, he might.
George Will's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.