The Chinese spy balloon was perfect for Mike Pompeo, an opportunity that fell from the sky. He has been running for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination since 2021 and badly needs a way to stand out.
BalloonGate gives Pompeo a mini moment to weigh in as a national security hawk, call President Biden weak, and tweet about his important experience on the world stage.
“I took many shots at the CCP during my time in the Trump administration. Read more in my new book ‘Never Give An Inch,’” Pompeo wrote in the most cringey tweet before the balloon was shot down, with a picture of the balloon marked “problem” and a picture of him pointing a rifle marked “solution.”
It’s hard to know who will even notice. Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and many others are out there blasting away at Biden for dithering on the balloon. And Pompeo is a low poller in the 2024 sweepstakes. He seems to lack a plan for how to break through. He’s not criticizing or challenging the popularity of Trump, or of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the other frontrunner. But he has picked what appears to be a pointless fight with Nikki Haley.
In the weeks after the midterm elections, Pompeo joined the chorus of disappointed Republicans expressing frustration with Trump and his losing candidates, tweeting, “We were told we would get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.” But he has since otherwise refused to put any real distance between himself and his former boss. He assiduously avoids criticizing Trump in his book, instead choosing to note that Trump often called him “My Mike,” which seems an embarrassing thing to admit. Pompeo also seems proud that he was the “only member of the president’s core national-security team who made it through four years without resigning or getting fired.”
Still, Pompeo has used his memoir, a best seller, to try to reach GOP voters and convince them he is macho, mad, mean, and ever-in-battle with the mainstream media. In his fight to uphold the “highest principles” Pompeo wrote, “I was vicious, relentless, manic, determined – you pick the adjective,” and he calls reporters “hyenas” and “wolves.”
His fly-by attack on Haley, including an accusation that she conspired with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to dump Mike Pence from the 2020 ticket, seems gratuitous and petty. (Haley called this “gossip and lies.”) Pompeo writes: “As for Haley, she gave fine remarks supporting Israel, but didn’t do much else … She abandoned the governorship of the great people of South Carolina for this ‘important’ role and quit it after just months on the job. Was it simply to join Boeing’s board of directors, or did she leave to protect her reputation from the inevitable so-called Trump taint the media inevitably slaps on people?”
Insulting Haley is clearly part of Pompeo’s intentional groundwork-laying, though to what end it isn’t clear. He hasn’t yet said he is running, but praying on the decision with his wife, which will be announced in “the next handful of months.” But Pompeo started his campaign, for relevance, a few months after Trump left office. He formed a PAC to help Republican candidates in the midterm elections and has traveled to early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Pompeo is running as Resume Man. And man, is his resume impressive. He graduated first in his class from West Point, and from Harvard Law and was on Harvard Law Review. After six years in the House of Representatives, he became CIA director for Trump, and then secretary of state – the only person ever to hold both jobs.
The problem for Pompeo is that GOP primary voters aren’t shopping for Resume Man. Pompeo and DeSantis both may want to avoid mentioning their Ivy League degrees in a primary campaign. After Trump no one needs the requisite experience for the presidency, and elites and their credentials are as contemptible as socialists and the media.
What’s more, today’s GOP primary voters – the ones who nominated Doug Mastriano, Gen. Don Bolduc, Tudor Dixon, and Herschel Walker for serious jobs – are also far less interested in foreign policy than Pompeo thinks they are. And wait until they find out about his deep ties to the Koch Network.
Sure, Haley is talking about the same foreign policy issues Pompeo is, but she’s likely running for vice president. The former governor and U.N. ambassador is most definitely qualified to run for president, she has great appeal as the only woman running in the contest, and she is also Indian American. But like Pompeo, she seems ill-suited to MAGA voters. Putting in a halfway decent performance in the primary still makes her the most obvious pick as a running mate.
Other likely contenders, with DeSantis leading the pack, all have their specific appeal as well: Pence has a natural constituency among his fellow evangelical Christians, especially those who believe Trump has too much baggage to win again; Glenn Youngkin flipped a state Biden won by 10 points the year before; Chris Sununu is a pro-choice swing state governor; Asa Hutchinson and Larry Hogan are former governors who have been openly anti-Trump.
Pompeo throws around “America First” labels to describe his four years of work for Trump, but he is no MAGA star or culture warrior ready to rescue the nation from “woke.” You don’t see Pompeo hanging out on OAN or online bashing vaccines or drag shows or grade school syllabuses.
With Ukraine aflame, and the looming prospect of war with China over Taiwan, it’s not that national security is unimportant. In next year’s general election these matters will be a critical part of the debate. But the bulk of Republicans Pompeo must woo for the nomination are more interested in what library books their kids can access than Iran’s current stash of fissile material. And Trump will spend more time talking about transgender issues than the cohesion of our transatlantic alliance as it counters Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Trump now opposes any more funding for Ukraine and, according to a new Politico report, plans to paint everyone else in the primary field as warmongers.
It doesn’t sound like Pompeo’s got a workaround for that. And if he doesn’t, but enters the race anyway, he’s off his balloon.