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Pence Challenges GOP to Ditch Trump's Populism for Reagan-Era Conservatism

Former Vice President Mike Pence attends a Labor Day Picnic on September 4, 2023 in Salem, New Hampshire. Credit - Scott Eisen—Getty Images

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There’s a dividing line in the Republican Party, and you can find it right around 1975. That’s the year when a former Governor of California decided to challenge a sitting President of his own party and remake the entire GOP.

Welcome to Ronald Reagan’s reboot. While most of the Republican field will be sure to invoke the Gipper in a few weeks when they travel to his resting place in Simi Valley, Calif., for their second debate, one of the contenders got something of a headstart on Wednesday, using a speech in New Hampshire to renew rivalries born out of Cold War necessity.

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Speaking at Saint Anselm College on the outskirts of Manchester, former Vice President Mike Pence rang the gong of old-school conservatism like only a former radio host could, channeling Ol’ Ronnie just enough. And it signaled, in an ever-so-nuanced way, that the fight in 2024 had plenty of echoes to 1976’s race: a powerful de facto incumbent was not inevitable, the party favorite may still prevail but deserves a challenge, and a reboot of the party is at foot even if its footing is unsteady at the moment.

“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the Republican Party as we have long known it will cease to exist,” Pence said on campus, doing his best Thatcherite channeling. “And the fate of American freedom would be in doubt.”

As much as Democrats want 2024 to be a fight over the fate of a post-Roe world and a microchip economy and a skid into life-after-Putin or -Xi, it may well be the contest that is dictated by the confines of era when David Bowie topped the charts. The ghosts of the post-Watergate era haunt the current Republican Party, and there’s no reason to think anything loyalists can expunge those spirits. The fondue is hot, the leggings are tight, and the rhetoric is hotter—even if the colors from those original VHS cassettes were fading.

Everything old is new again, and everything new is too newfangled. Which is perfect proving ground for Pence, whose posture on Wednesday was one he had been inching toward for over a year.

With an ex-President trying to mount a comeback far more audacious than anything Dick Nixon imagined with his David Frost interviews, the Republican Party is being forced to face a gut check of its own making. Sure, Trump is a fundraising behemoth, but he’s also a pugilistic bully. For every comma he adds to the red-hatted ledger, he adds a scarlet demerit for decency. No one really knows what cardinal ordinance this march is heading toward.

And this is where Pence matters. For all of his self-righteous bluster and his indulgent image of himself as a guardian of the high ground, Pence remains an unimpeachable (and unimpeached) weathervane of the conservative movement. During his first tour of Washington as a member of Congress, Pence was the baseline for conservative orthodoxy. In Leadership, he was House Republicans’ gut check on whether a notion was sufficiently fair game. Never one to scream, his side eye could scuttle any idea well before it made its way to the clerks, the bean counters, or pollsters.

Years later, Pence—and particularly his testimony—may be what saves the modern Republican Party from re-nominating Trump, a criminal defendant for all and political pariah for much of this country. As Trump’s lieutenant for four years—and target-for-lynching for a day back on Jan. 6—Pence has an inside track on what went down that terrifying day at the Captiol, when deputized political thugs of the then-President tried to subvert democracy to keep Trump in power.

But that quality—his unbending fealty to the Constitution and wise counsel that told him he couldn’t heed Trump’s demands to, at best, bend the law—may also be his undoing politically. Pence is at the fore, but only of the second tier. He is still polling in single digits with no real obvious moment to break out of that slump. He has tried to embrace the legacy of the Trump record without saddling himself with everything unseemly about the era. For a devout man devoid of vice, Pence is trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

Pence’s new pitch paints Trump as a populist on par with the likes of Howard Dean or Bobby Kennedy. Pence argues he and Trump governed from a crouch of conservatism but that Trump elected to a second term would be unmoored, unable to promise that he’d go forward with such an instinct. Implicit in the caution: Voters don’t know what version of Trumpism they’d be buying in 2024. And, without Pence as a guardrail V.P., they can’t risk it.

Pence, ultimately, may not matter. He’s a well-funded polling trailer at the moment, and his very, very smart team hasn’t yet cracked how to break the Republican Party’s fervent fever dream of Trumpist hallucinations. Pence is as strong as a true conservative as the field could be at the moment, but he’s punching up, up, up. Once the mob sought him out for the gallows on Jan. 6, Pence’s political fate may have been sealed.

Still, it’s not for nothing that Pence showed up to tell his fellow conservatives that they don’t have to be hostage to Trumpism. As much as the Republican Party ambled into Gerald Ford in the wake of Nixon’s resignation—and the half-century of consternation that followed his scandals of his own making—there is still a chunk of this country that holds the ideological ground for it. Trumpism may dominate the GOP, but it isn’t the only identity that can flourish on the right. Pence may well be on a doomed mission to win the nomination, but his goal may be more important, more idealized: to remind Republicans that there was an era before the populist, Trumpian bullhorn; there once was a mild-mannered man from the Midwest (Reagan from Illinois, Pence from Indiana) who remade the GOP in his conservative image. The party may yet survive.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.