Pence warns against rise of populism ‘unmoored to conservative principles’

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday laid out the stakes in the 2024 GOP primary as a battle between populism and traditional conservatism.

Pence, speaking in New Hampshire, cast himself as a candidate in the mold of former President Reagan and warned that the party risked abandoning its decades-old policy views and principles if it elected his old running mate, Donald Trump, or someone like him.

“Republican voters face a choice. It will determine both the fate of our party, and the course of our nation,” Pence said at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, according to prepared remarks.

“Today, I ask my fellow Republicans this: In the days to come, will we be the party of conservatism or will our party follow the siren song of populism unmoored to conservative principles?” he added, suggesting the divide between the two is “unbridgeable.”

The former vice president’s speech reflects the broader battle playing out in the Republican primary between populist outsider candidates such as Trump and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and more traditionally conservative GOP figures like Pence, who is also a former congressman and Indiana governor.

Pence, who first warned last year against the dangers of “unmoored populism,” argued Wednesday that populists favor “an agenda stitched together by little else than personal grievances and performative outrage.”

He warned those who favor populism over conservatism would abandon America’s role as a global leader, defer the matter of abortion policy to the states and erode constitutional norms. Pence at one point referred to Trump’s call last year to “terminate” parts of the Constitution, a comment the former president later tried to walk back.

Pence has stood by more common conservative tentpoles, speaking out in favor of abortion restrictions nationwide, calling for balancing the federal budget even if it means cutting or reforming popular government programs, boosting military spending and maintaining U.S. leadership on the world stage.

“Should the new populism of the right seize and guide our party, the GOP as we have long known it will cease to exist,” Pence said Wednesday, according to prepared remarks. “And the fate of American freedom would be in doubt.” 

Pence’s advisers maintained that the speech was about more than an individual candidate like Trump or Ramaswamy. And while Pence referenced Trump and Ramaswamy by name fleetingly, the speech was an unmistakable nod to the strength of the former president and Ramaswamy in recent polls.

Both Trump and Ramaswamy have expressed skepticism about continued U.S. support for Ukraine, and both men have indicated they would be sympathetic to at least some who were charged for their roles in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. Ramaswamy has said abortion policy should be left to the states, while Trump has been largely noncommittal about a federal ban.

A slew of polls conducted after the first GOP primary debate in late August found Trump leading by more than 30 percentage points over his next closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). A Morning Consult poll had Ramaswamy in third place at 10 percent, while a CNN poll had him trailing Trump, DeSantis, Pence and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).

With Trump firmly ahead in the primary and a swath of voters firmly backing the former president despite his legal troubles and his defeat in the 2020 election, the party may have already shifted away from Pence.

Pence and his advisers maintain that Trump governed as more of a traditional conservative during his first term and makes no such promise to do so if reelected.

The former vice president repeatedly invoked Reagan on Wednesday, something his advisers say he is likely to continue to do in advance of the second primary debate, scheduled for later this month at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. Pence’s speech was titled “Populism v. Conservatism: Republicans Time for Choosing,” a nod to Reagan’s own “A Time for Choosing” speech in 1964.

Pence said that while Republicans do not need to emulate every Reagan policy, staying rooted in his basic beliefs would ensure the party’s long-term success. 

“If we cease to be champions of our Constitution and all the principles enshrined in it, our party’s relevancy will be confined to history books,” Pence said. “It may live on in some populist fashion, but then it will truly be, in a cruel twist, Republican in name only.”

Tags Donald Trump GOP presidential primary Mike Pence Mike Pence New Hampshire Ronald Reagan Vivek Ramaswamy Vivek Ramaswamy