WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump, on his recent European trip, literally shoved aside Prime Minister Dusko Markovic of Montenegro in order to get to the front of a group of leaders. On Monday, Vice President Pence hosted the shoving victim at the White House, then praised Markovic publicly.
“I had the privilege of welcoming the prime minister to the White House today,” Pence said at an Atlantic Council dinner. “I was very humbled to be able to share a few moments with him on the very day that Montenegro became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”
On that same European trip, Trump surprised his own aides and unsettled allies when he refused to affirm NATO’s collective-defense obligations. On Monday night, Pence expressed his “unwavering” support: “The United States is resolved, as we were at NATO’s founding and in every hour since, to live by that principle that an attack on one of us is an attack on us all.”
John Nance Garner, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice presidents, famously compared the office to “a bucket of warm piss.” For Pence, the vice presidency is a bucket of Clorox and a mop.
Tuesday morning found the vice president doing what he does frequently these days: cleaning up Trump’s messes. Pence, speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, offered a soothing contrast to Trump’s recent outbursts.
Where Trump alienated allies and opened a dispute with the mayor of London, Pence vowed to “continue to stand with our allies” and praised “our cherished ally,” Britain. Where Trump has largely removed human rights from the agenda, Pence called for “an America standing tall in the world again for our values and our ideals.”
Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, told attendees to pray for Arnold Schwarzenegger and his “Apprentice” ratings. Pence aimed higher. “Don’t so much pray for a cause as for country,” he said, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “Just pray for America.”
The contrast between the reckless president and his responsible understudy has me thinking, not for the first time, how much better things would be if Pence were president. Trump shows no ability to correct course, to pull himself out of a self-destructive spiral. It may be premature to talk of impeachment or resignation, but Trump’s path is unsustainable. Republicans in Congress would be sensible to start thinking about an endgame, and the former Indiana governor may be the their best hope – and all of ours.
Many liberals correctly call Pence a doctrinaire conservative, particularly on gay rights and other social issues. He’ll be forever tarnished because of his role in legitimizing Trump for mainstream conservatives, a calculation based on the vain hope that he could influence Trump. He has embarrassed himself in office by parroting Trump’s untruths and cheerleading for the boss.
But Pence is, at core, a small-d democrat, not a demagogue. The world would be safer with him in charge. We would still have fierce divisions about the nation’s direction. But Pence, in the nearly two decades I’ve known him, has been an honorable man. Opponents can disagree with him yet sleep well knowing he’s unlikely to be irrational.
This was supposed to have been “infrastructure week” for Trump, but he has been using his Twitter account to impair further the infrastructure of his presidency: burning bridges, building bunkers and going off the rails. He has vented unfiltered rage at the courts, the media, the mayor of London, Qatar and his own administration.
Meanwhile, Pence governs. He visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to have a luncheon talk with GOP senators about health-care reform. He hosted female entrepreneurs at the White House on Monday and said seven words to them that likely never passed his boss’s lips: “I’m here to listen, not to talk.”
At the Atlantic Council dinner, he gave a statesmanlike response to the London attacks that contrasted dramatically with Trump’s. He repeatedly hailed NATO and European allies. He criticized Russian expansionism. He was diplomatic about areas of disagreement with Europe.
Trump could not have given that speech, nor the one Pence gave at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast, asking for prayers to heal a divided country – at almost the exact moment Trump was railing on Twitter about fake news and political correctness. Pence urged the Catholics to “continue to be the hands and feet of our Savior, reaching in with love and compassion, embracing the dignity of all people of every background and every experience.”
A noble – even presidential – aspiration. Under Trump we don’t have a prayer.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.