Mike Pence has received praise from a small but significant number of Republicans and conservatives alike for pushing back against one of the many offshoots of Donald Trump’s 2020 election “big lie”. Specifically, he has smashed the idea that he could and should have “cancelled the election” by rejecting legitimate swing state voter rolls.
Pence followed another notable figure in arguably hurting his own cause by speaking out on principle: former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. The connection between a black sports personality condemning racism in football and a white politician defending himself against a lie told by his own party may not be immediately obvious. Still, the two men’s courage of conviction could ultimately help realize their larger vision – if they can hold the line.
During 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 election results. He added, pointedly, that such action would be “un-American” – a bold statement given the stranglehold Trump still has on the party.
Pence’s words came just as the Republican National Committee censured House MKs Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for serving on the Jan. 6 select committee and declared the riot “legitimate political speech” (words which quickly exploded in the face of the RNC).
Historically, Republicans have been the party most likely to line up behind the next alpha dog of the pack. That said, not even Ronald Reagan commanded such complete obedience across the ranks, with the party ready to reject any principle or policy previously adopted. The deification of Trump is a new phenomenon, but already so deeply rooted in the party that to fight it is to risk political suicide.
If Pence’s nerves need a boost, he could take a cue from Flores. The Dolphins fired him last month after three years as head coach, despite posting a winning record in each of the past two years, including an 8-1 record in the final nine games of last season. .
Flores then shockingly sued the National Football League and three teams, alleging racism in the league’s hiring practices. He noted that the NFL, which has 32 teams, had, at the time of the lawsuit, only one black head coach (Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh), despite the existence of a so-called ” Rooney rule” encouraging minority hiring.
Flores’ suit echoed the global criticism that black coaches (and many outside the League) had made more quietly for years: charade interviews with black coaching candidates, and that any hired African-American had a shorter window to success. When they were fired, they were less likely than their white peers to win another head coaching gig.
There is an almost universal consensus in the sports world that, as correct as Flores may be on substance, he has almost certainly destroyed any hope he might have had of ever getting another job as head coach. . To no one’s surprise, despite being on the “short list” for the Houston Texans job, Flores was passed over.
On the other hand, the Texans — who were expected to name Josh McCown, a retired white quarterback with no previous college or professional coaching experience — made a last-minute change. The team hired defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, a black man who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl 17 years ago. It’s almost unthinkable that they made this legal decision of Flores’ absence.
So, while perhaps dealing a mortal blow to his personal goals, Flores’ audacity forced a League-wide conversation that opened up opportunities 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 yield unexpected rewards. Calling out Trump carries the same risks — and potential rewards — as suing the NFL for Flores.
Trump has primarily used fear and intimidation to stifle dissent within the Republican Party, rallying his formidable base to turn against anyone who dares cross his path. The more he is feared, the greater his strength. But when you challenge bullies, their feet of clay often crack. It’s possible that Pence’s stance against Trump could embolden other Republicans who have been reluctant to run against Trump in 2024 (hello, Ron DeSantis?). Likewise, GOP donors might be more willing to split their money among candidates other than Trump.
Once Pence realizes he has nothing to lose by speaking out against his former boss, he might find even more lines of contrast besides “it’s unconstitutional to void an election.”
For example, Trump was pretty bad at grassroots governance — even sabotaging a deal to pass what was supposed to be his signature policy question. As a former conservative governor, Pence should be able to argue that he would be able to competently get things done in a way the former guy just can’t.
Crossing paths with the man a huge segment of the GOP base adores, Pence may have made himself radioactive for those voters. If becoming president is still his dream, challenging Trump may put him out of reach.
But if his dream is to bring the GOP back from a personality-worshipping cult to a healthier, problem-focused footing, he needs to put this moment in the spotlight and talk about principle instead of personality, about the Constitution instead. than worship, skill rather than chaos.