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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Are Struggling to Walk the MAGA Tightrope

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The jockeying for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination has begun, and frankly it's terribly awkward. This is because no would-be candidate can easily ignore the 400 pound guy sitting on their party's bed, the one the current administration now refers to simply as the "former guy". Nor can they ignore their own prior behavior or statements about his quest to overturn the 2020 election, which might doom their chances in the GOP primary once their opponents begin to highlight them.

Take poor Mike Pence, the other former guy. Pence was so obsequious and flattering to his former boss during his four-year reign that one could only assume that Pence himself must have aspirations for higher office. That appears to be the case, with Pence now on a kind of speaking tour at major GOP events.

It's not going very well. At the "Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference" in Orlando, Florida last week, Pence was was heckled and booed by some members of the audience, who could be heard calling him "traitor." This is because, as the former guy loves to remind his base, Pence came back to the Capitol after the insurrectionists had departed and proceeded to certify the results of the Electoral College count, despite calls for him to refuse to do so. That act of perceived disloyalty earned him scorn from his former boss that is routinely echoed by MAGA faithful, some of whom (as Pence surely would like to forget) actually tried to find and hang him on January 6.

Pence has been searching for some way to have it both ways, where he can heap praise upon 45 as a leader but stand by his decision to certify his loss. That also isn't going well. At a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California yesterday, Pence addressed the clown in the room directly, declaring, "I will always be proud that we did our part on that tragic day to reconvene the Congress and fulfilled our duty under the Constitution and the laws of the United States" and noting that he had no constitutional authority to do what his boss had wanted him to do. "The truth is, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president," Pence stated.

Pence isn't alone in having to overcome skepticism from the base. Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley plainly has her eye set on a presidential run but must explain away her own criticisms of her former boss. In a closed-door speech before the RNC last winter, Haley tested the waters by breaking sharply with Trump, condemning him as having been "badly wrong with his words" over the January 6 attack, and stating that "his actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history."

It wasn't an isolated criticism. Haley also told a Politico reporter back in January that she was "disgusted" by Trump's treatment of Pence on January 6, especially considering the former VP's loyalty to him, and noted how Trump was slow to respond when Pence's life was in danger at the Capitol. She also predicted that Trump would "find himself further and further isolated" from the party—something that hasn't yet happened. Instead, it is Trump's critics who find themselves increasingly shunned, including another powerful woman in the GOP, Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost her leadership role in the party over her principled vote to impeach the former president.

Haley would sooner forget she ever said those things and demonstrate her fealty today. She recently pledged to not run in 2024 and to support her former boss in the event he decides he wants to sit in the Oval Office again. Unsure if this will happen, however, she is also testing out her own rhetoric, blasting the Biden administration as "socialist" and wading into the culture wars over race. For Nikki Haley, née Nimrata Randhawa, her own political success, despite being born the daughter of South Asian immigrants, demonstrates somehow that America cannot be and is not a racist country but rather the land of equality and boundless opportunity. Ironically, her own political rise has been highly dependent on staying in the good graces of the most powerful racist in the country.

Pence and Haley are walking the same political tightrope that many would-be candidates in the GOP now attempt: appearing to the hard core base to be adoring of the president while remaining critical enough of him to win over more centrist voters should they become the GOP's candidate in the general. The former guy, however, isn't likely to let any of this go, and neither will his loyal supporters. The Make All Grovel Again show has only just rebooted, and with big MAGA rallies once again planned with 45 as the headliner, it will only further cement the party and its leaders to him—even if that cement will drag them all to the bottom along with him.