Voices: Mike Pompeo calls for courage from conservatives, but is still afraid to say Trump’s name

Mr Pompeo has been talked of as potential GOP hopeful for 2024 presidential season (Getty Images)
Mr Pompeo has been talked of as potential GOP hopeful for 2024 presidential season (Getty Images)

Anyone who wants to run for president must find their lane. They must craft and tell a story about themselves in a way that appeals to their party’s base and the wider public.

Mike Pompeo, former secretary of state, has been trying to do that for some time now. And at CPAC on Friday, he made his first attempt to set himself apart from his former boss and possible future opponent, Donald Trump.

It must have felt like a big step for a man once described as “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” But even in a speech filled with calls for toughness and courage, Pompeo could not utter Trump’s name when attempting to draw that line.

“We shouldn’t look for larger-than-life personalities, but rather we should find power in the rooms like this one, people all across the country,” he told a sparse crowd at the conservative convention.

“We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” he added, leaving the audience to guess whom he might be referring to.

“Over the last few years, I’ve heard some who claim to be conservative excuse hypocrisy by saying something like ‘well, we’re electing a president, not a Sunday school teacher.’ That’s true. But having taught Sunday school, maybe we could get both," he added, bravely.

His reluctance to mention his former boss might not have been so apparent had he not spent the rest of his speech calling for a more “muscular” conservative movement.

Pompeo frequently implored his audience to “never give an inch” — which, coincidentally happens to be the title of his book. But when it comes to Trump, it appears Pompeo is willing to give a mile.

And herein lies the contradiction at the heart of Pompeo’s nascent run for the White House, and indeed his legacy as a whole — the Pompeo Paradox, if you will. If your brand as a candidate is a tough guy, former military, no-nonsense swaggerer, isn’t that undermined by your inability to directly criticise your opponent? Why should any voter believe Pompeo will “never give an inch” as president when he can’t even do it on the campaign trail?

All of this might explain why Pompeo is currently polling at 1 per cent in GOP primary polls, and has been for some time.

There were other clues too, to Pompeo’s pitch, among the boilerplate warnings about attacks on schoolchildren by the radical left and Chinese balloons. Frequent references to Republicans losing winnable elections suggest Pompeo might try to cast himself as an electable, traditional conservative.

“We lost race after winnable race because voters didn’t trust us to do any better than the tax and spend liberals,” he said of the Midterms.

“We lost three elections in a row, and the popular vote in seven of the last eight. They’ve lost trust in conservative ideas. This is the task in front of us. I’m convinced we can do it because we are right,” he added.

“We need a party a conservative party that we can be proud to call home again rooted in our founding ideas led by people of real character competence and commitment to the mission that brought you all here today, restoring an America that is not only great, but moral, muscular decent, ready to stare down the forces of unfreedom, not just on Twitter or in the media, but in every place this miracle today is under threat,” Pompeo said.

If that sounds like a pitch for the White House, it is. But until Pompeo stares down his former boss, he’s unlikely to get the chance to face the forces of unfreedom, as he sees them.