Why you should care

Pence’s decisions in his first term as Indiana governor will go a long way to determining just how serious a 2016 (or 2020?) contender he really is.

The quickest path to the White House? Via the governor’s mansion, of course — not the U.S. Capitol. Everybody knows that. Right?

Political pros might want to reconsider that wisdom when they look at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s experience in his first two years in Indianapolis.

The thinking in political circles goes that members of Congress take too many votes that muddy their political record without getting much done, while governors can pile up a hands-on record of accomplishments that they can tout on the campaign trail. So after piling up a virtually flawless conservative record and a national fundraising network during six terms in Congress from 2001 to 2012, the silver-haired, 54-year-old Pence’s growing executive experience is earning him growing hype as a national GOP contender for 2016, or perhaps beyond.

If you pay attention, you learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning.

Mike Pence

A closer look at state politics, however, shows the first-term governor is finding it as hard as any congressman to balance principles and pragmatism. Indiana political watchers say the next year is likely to define this childhood JFK aficionado turned Reagan Republican as he seeks to push back against his critics and decide how to move ahead with controversial choices on health care and education.

Born and raised in a big Irish-Catholic Indiana family, Pence (who’s since become an evangelical Christian) launched his first run for Congress in 1988, when he was in his late 20s. It failed, as did a second bid two years later — both nasty, hotly contested races. That prompted serious soul-searching for the “idealistic young conservative,” as Pence describes his younger self.

The upside? “If you pay attention,” he says, “you learn a lot more from losing than you do from winning.”

After his second defeat, Pence penned the essay Confessions of a Negative Campaigner, which was part mea culpa, part blueprint for a better way.

And since re-entering politics in 2000, when he ran for and won his 6th District congressional seat, he’s largely stuck to the principles of focusing on substantive issues, rather than bad-mouthing opponents.

The former attorney and onetime talk-radio host was quick to build a name for himself in Washington during the last decade, emerging as a darling of the right for opposing his own party leadership over policies like No Child Left Behind, and speaking out for deep-red principles as head of the House Republican Conference, a conservative caucus. His one big deviation from conservative orthodoxy: sponsoring a 2006 bill that would have created a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants.

An early show of forbidden pragmatism?

Pence recalls sitting in the Oval Office with George W. Bush, who was making his own push for immigration reform, and being asked by a quizzical 43rd president why he, an avowed small-government conservative, was wading into a policy arena that was an anathema to so many in his base.

“Maybe a young Irishman who stepped ashore [on Ellis Island] named Richard Michael Cawley has something to do with it,” Pence told the president. Cawley was Pence’s grandfather, he explained, and he “came to this country when the system was working.”

The backlash to Pence’s immigration proposal was predictable, and it was the only time during his 12 years in office that he really felt the wrath of the right. Until now.

Governor Mike Pence hugging young boy in classroom

Indiana Republican Gov. Mike Pence embraces a preschool student at the Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis.

In recent months, the first-term governor has taken heavy incoming fire from everyone from Michelle Malkin to the National Review, for his decision to accept federal money intended for Medicaid users — funds made available via Obamacare — and for approving education standards they say smack of Common Core, which conservatives inside Indiana and out have rejected as big government meddling.

In both cases, Pence hasn’t exactly accepted the national programs. He negotiated with the Obama administration to fund a state-based Medicaid-like program started by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, which he maintains is a consumer- rather than government-driven health care system.

And he rejected the Common Core standards, endorsing an alternative set written by state officials. Still, he’s been torched by conservatives for adopting Obamacare and ObamaCore Lite.

Of course, this recent streak of pragmatism could burnish Pence’s appeal in a general election.

His uncompromising record in Congress led Indiana devotees to think he’d always stick to his principles, and now they feel a sense of betrayal, says Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Turns out that that running a government isn’t always so straightforward.

“There is a certain amount of practicality that comes into play when you’re actually governing,” says Downs. ”It’s hard to keep those extremely strong positions on either end of the spectrum when you’re the person actually doing the job.”

So while national Republicans cite Pence’s gubernatorial experience as they tout him for a presidential bid in 2016 — Pence says he’s flattered but focused on Indiana — the decisions he’s making now could prove problematic in a GOP primary.

Of course, this recent streak of pragmatism could burnish Pence’s appeal in a general election and give him some big-policy decisions to stake his name to, something he’s lacked in his first two years in Indianapolis.

“When he first became governor, the things he was talking about doing didn’t exactly light up the world,” Downs says of Pence’s limited influence early on. And Downs says that how he handles the coming months — whether he ploughs ahead or retreats — will go a long way toward establishing what kind of governor he is.

Certainly, it all makes his 2006 immigration proposal seem like less of an anomaly.

Pence says he stands by that proposal today, though he’s no longer in the middle of the debate over illegal immigration that continues to rage nearly a decade later.

“There’s got to be a rational middle ground between mass deportation and amnesty,” he says. And he believes his plan — what he calls a “no-amnesty guest-worker program” that would enlist the private sector to help monitor guest employees — remains the right solution.

As of now, the immigration stalemate in Washington isn’t his problem.

But it could be, come 2016.

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