Pence says there are 'better choices' than Trump for 2024, calls to put entitlement cuts 'on the table'

The potential 2024 presidential candidate Pence also took a veiled swipe at Trump over Republicans' performance in the 2022 midterms.

Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday he would prefer a Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump in the 2024 presidential election, while floating reforms to popular entitlement programs as he mulls his own possible White House run.

“I think we’re going to have better choices” than Trump, Pence said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” when asked if the GOP should nominate someone other than the former president next year. Pence did not explicitly rule out supporting Trump if he became the GOP nominee.

The ex-vice president, who served under Trump in the White House for four years, also appeared to take a soft swipe at his former boss when discussing Republicans’ underperformance in the midterm elections.

“Our candidates that were focused on the past, particularly on relitigating the last election, did not do well, including in areas that we should have done very well,” Pence said.

Pence is expected to be considering his own presidential run — a move that could put him in direct competition with Trump, who has attacked him for refusing to help overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. After Pence said on Jan. 6, 2021, that he wouldn’t go along with Trump’s scheme, a violent mob of Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, sending the then-vice president and congressional lawmakers into hiding.

But Pence offered only a cryptic answer about his presidential plans in the new interview Wednesday.

“I’ll keep you posted,” he said when asked if he sought the Republican presidential nomination.

Pence demurred as some of his would-be challengers have begun to file into the GOP primary. After several relatively quiet months when Trump was the only notable Republican on the campaign trail, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley last week became his first major primary challenger. Another candidate, entrepreneur and right-wing culture warrior Vivek Ramaswamy, entered the presidential race on Tuesday.

A host of other Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are believed to be gearing up to announce their own White House bids.

As he stayed mum on the prospect of a presidential bid, Pence delved into some of the thorniest policy questions facing the country. When asked about talks in Congress to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, and the prospect of reforming Medicare and Social Security, he said the U.S. should consider long-term changes to the popular but expensive programs.

Some House Republicans have targeted the programs as part of a potential deal to raise the U.S. borrowing limit, evoking sharp criticism from Democrats and prompting a protracted back-and-forth. Leaders of both parties are vowing not to touch the entitlements.

“I’m glad to see the Republican majority saying we need to use this debt ceiling to start us back in the direction of fiscal discipline, but look, we all know where the real issue is in terms of long-term debt,” Pence said.

“I respect the speaker’s commitment to take Social Security and Medicare off the table for the debt ceiling negotiations. We’ve got to put them on the table in the long term,” Pence said.

“We’re looking at a debt crisis in this country over the next 25 years that is driven by entitlements, and nobody in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about it,” he said.

Pressed on what reforms he would make, Pence said there were “lots of good ideas.” He referenced former President Ronald Reagan working to raise the retirement age, along with long-term personal savings accounts. But “the first job is to be straight, the second job is, get everybody at the table,” he said.

The Trump administration did not pursue entitlement reforms. Confronted with that fact, Pence contended that the Trump administration’s first objective was to “get the economy moving again” after a sluggish Obama-era recovery from the 2008 recession.

“Then history showed up in the form of Covid,” Pence said — though he added, “I don’t think we did nearly enough.”

Pence repeatedly said the country needed “leadership” at the presidential level, and said the 2022 midterm results showed that “elections are about the future.”

“I mean, our candidates who were focused on the issues affecting Americans today, and solutions for the future, did very well,” Pence said. But “our candidates that were focused on the past, particularly on relitigating the last election, did not do well, including in areas that we should have done very well.”

Trump never conceded the 2020 election to Biden, and has spent the years since his loss falsely claiming that the race was tainted by widespread election fraud. Many of Trump’s hand-picked midterms candidates, who echoed those false claims or otherwise cast doubt on the 2020 outcome, lost in high-profile races.

“I don’t think anybody could have defeated Hillary Clinton other than Donald Trump in 2016,” Pence told CNBC.

But now, he said, “I honestly hear people talking to me very regularly about wanting to get back to the policies, but wanting to return to the kind of politics that makes it possible for us to take on some of these long-term, intractable problems.”