WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has seldom ventured beyond his midtown Manhattan tower since winning the election, delegating responsibilities in Washington to Vice President-elect Mike Pence in what experts say likely is a preview of the next four years.
Trump has not returned to the capital since meeting with President Barack Obama and congressional Republican leaders on Nov. 10.
When the transition team needed someone to talk policy and the incoming administration’s first 100 days agenda, it sent Pence, who spent more than a decade in the House and was part of the GOP leadership team. He was there again when Trump’s team needed a senior official to address a leading manufacturers’ association.
A preview of how the Trump White House may operate came on the evening of Dec. 5. The president-elect was in Grand Rapids, Mich., firing up and thanking supporters for helping him turn the state red for the first presidential race since 1988. Pence was talking health care, immigration, tax cuts and Medicaid to a groups of conservative policy wonks in Washington, just blocks from the White House and Capitol.
“I think Donald Trump has a very ambitious agenda that he’s quite serious about,” Tommy Binion, policy outreach director at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with ties to the Trump transition staff. “And I think Mike Pence is the key to that.”
Citing comments made recently by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump confidant, Binion said “there’s a gap between the Trump rallies and the Trump reality.”
“From a policy perspective, Mike Pence is the one to make that happen,” he said. “He’s the one who knows how to get things done in Washington.”
In many ways, the role seems similar to the one Ohio Gov. John Kasich says was floated to him by the Trump team when he was approached about being Trump’s No. 2. Kasich told CNN he was told he would run domestic and foreign policy; Trump’s aides later denied that arrangement was offered.
The Trump transition office did not respond to requests for comment about Pence’s role.
Trump may speak in broad terms about restoring American greatness or punishing companies that want to take factories and job overseas in the name of cost-cutting. But it’s Pence who is fluent in matters such as reconciliation — the procedural gambit the GOP plans to use to repeal the 2010 health care law — and entitlement reform.
Pence showed his ability to serve up both red meat and policy prescriptions to a Washington room full of wonks. At the Dec. 5 event, he talked about restoring America’s military as the world’s “arsenal of democracy” and hit an applause line when he vowed that the Trump administration would repeal Obama’s health care law “lock, stock and barrel.”
While he did not describe how the GOP would try to replace Obamacare, he did promise it will be built around “free-market reforms that reduce the costs of health care without growing the size of government.”
On the long-but-elusive GOP goal of overhauling Medicaid, Pence pledged to lead the way on using block grants to allow state governments to “innovate” with an eye toward driving down health costs “while we meet the needs of those who are struggling.”
“The vice president-elect will be the Washington point man. When Trump selected Pence, he was explicit about Pence’s links to Capitol Hill and all its occult ways,” said William Galston, a former White House aide under President Bill Clinton.
“Trump is smart enough to see that if business runs on longstanding relationships, then probably politics does, as well,” he said.
Galston expects Pence will be the White House’s chief operating officer to Trump’s chief executive officer, with Reince Priebus, the incoming chief of staff, “making the trains run on time.”
“Once you’re in the White House, it needs to function reasonably smoothly or you’re going to generate bad stories every single day,” Galston said. “It has to be under professional management. I think Pence and Priebus are there to do that. You can’t run the White House in a slap-dash fashion. That’s elementary. I suspect that’s what Pence and Priebus are going to do.”
Leonard Williams, dean of Manchester University’s College of Education and Social Sciences, sees the Indiana governor as “the conduit between Trump and the various factions of the Republican party.”
“All the while, though, his thumb will be on the scale for the socially conservative (and) movement conservative … elements of the party. “Given Pence’s own links to the (conservative mega-donor) Koch brothers, he might even be able to help Trump make peace with and benefit from their vast political network.”