August 14, 2022

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Pence followed another notable personality in arguably hurting his own cause by speaking up on...

Pence followed another notable personality in arguably hurting his own cause by speaking up on principle: former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. The connection between a Black sports figure condemning racism in football and a White politician defending himself against a lie told by his own party may not be immediately obvious. Yet both men’s courage of conviction could ultimately help fulfill their greater vision — if they’re able to hold the line.

In a Feb. 4 appearance before a Federalist Society conference in Florida, Pence said unequivocally, “President Trump is wrong. …Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of the election.” He added, pointedly, that such an action would be “un-American” — a bold statement given the vise-like hold Trump still has on the party.

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Pence’s words came just as the Republican National Committee censured House GOPers Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the Jan. 6th Select Committee and declared the riot a “legitimate political discourse” (words that promptly blew up in the RNC’s face).

Republicans historically have been the party more likely to fall in line behind the next alpha dog in the pack. That said, not even Ronald Reagan commanded such complete obeisance throughout the ranks, with the party willing to toss aside all principle or previously adopted policy. The Trump deification is a new phenomenon, but one already so deeply ingrained in the party that to battle against it is to risk political suicide.

If Pence’s nerves need shoring up, he might take inspiration from Flores. The Dolphins fired him last month after three years as head coach, despite a winning record in each of the last two years, including going 8-1 in the final nine games of the last season. Flores then shockingly sued the National Football League and three teams, claiming racism in League hiring practices. He noted that the 32-team NFL had, at the time the lawsuit was filed, just one Black head coach (Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin), despite the existence of a so-called “Rooney Rule” encouraging minority hires.

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Flores’ suit blared to the world criticism that Black coaches (and many outside the League) had been making more quietly for years: charade interviews with Black coach candidates, and that any African Americans hired had a shorter window to succeed. When fired, they were less likely than their White peers to ever win another head coaching gig.

There is almost universal consensus in the sports world that, as correct as Flores may be on the merits, that he almost assuredly destroyed any hope he might still have had of ever getting another head coach position. To no one’s surprise, though on the “short list” for the Houston Texans job, Flores was passed over.

On the other hand, the Texans — who had been widely expected to name Josh McCown, a retired White quarterback with no prior college or pro coaching experience — pulled a last minute switch. The team hired its defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, a Black man who had taken the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl 17 years ago. It’s almost unthinkable that they would have done this absent Flores’ legal move.

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So while perhaps dealing a death blow to his personal goals, Flores’ boldness forced a League-wide conversation that led to opportunity for others. (Is it a coincidence that the Dolphins hired a young biracial head coach to succeed Flores?)

There’s a lesson for the former vice president: Standing up for what’s right can produce unexpected rewards. Calling out Trump carries the same risks — and potential benefits — as suing the NFL did for Flores.

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Trump has primarily used fear and intimidation to tamp down dissent in the Republican Party, rallying his formidable base to turn on any who dare cross him. The more he is feared, the greater his strength. But when you challenge bullies, their clay feet often crack. It’s possible Pence’s stand against Trump might embolden other Republicans who have been reluctant to run against Trump in 2024 (hello, Ron DeSantis?). So, too, GOP donors might be more willing to spread their money around to candidates other than Trump.

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Once Pence realizes that he has nothing to lose in speaking out against his former boss, he might find even more lines of contrast besides “it’s unconstitutional to overturn an election.” For example, Trump was pretty bad at basic governance — even sabotaging a deal to pass what was supposed to be his signature policy issue. As a conservative former governor, Pence should be able to make the case that he’d be able to get things done competently in a way that the former guy simply can’t.

In crossing the man that a huge segment of the GOP base adores, Pence may have made himself radioactive to those voters. If becoming president is still his dream, it may be that challenging Trump puts that out of his reach.

But if his dream is to draw the GOP away from a personality-adoring cult back onto a saner, issues-based footing, he must press this moment in the spotlight and speak principle over personality, Constitution over cult, competence over chaos.

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More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Jan. 6-Sized Hole in Election Law Can Be Fixed: Noah Feldman

• What Biden Should Say on Election Legitimacy: Jonathan Bernstein

• Murdoch Has the Power If He Wants Trump to Move On: Timothy L. O’Brien

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.


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