On Tuesday afternoon, Republican Jeff Flake took to the floor of the United States Senate and delivered a fiery denunciation of Donald Trump. "There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles," the Arizona senator said, before laying into "the coarseness of our leadership," "the flagrant disregard for truth or decency," and "reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior." Without ever mentioning Trump by name, Flake—who has been one of Trump's loudest Republican critics—called for the restoration of "American leadership" and reminded the country that "none of this is normal."
Then, after calling out the president and delivering a headline-grabbing, rabble-rousing speech that sent social media into overdrive, he announced what he is doing about all of these disturbing things.
I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.
Flake's argument is that the Republican Party has become hostile to a "traditional conservative" like him, who is in favor of free trade, limited government, and immigration. "We have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment," he told his colleagues. "But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy."
Like much of Flake's speech, it is hard to argue with that. His sentiments are good and even vaguely noble, the sort of rhetoric that speaks to a strain of civic patriotism that can be genuinely moving for many Americans. "To have a healthy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith," Flake said. By this point, you could almost feel the miniature flags waving in the breeze.
But if you believed in these great truths, if you were convinced the leader of your party—the president—was such a threat to the fabric of the country, what would you do? Surely the platform of a US senator is a valuable piece of real estate if you want to speak out against a dangerous president. It's also a means by which you could introduce legislation to correct the worst impulses of a dysfunctional administration. You could filibuster particularly toxic bills introduced by Trump lackeys. If you felt really bold, you might even change your party status to independent as an indication of your dissatisfaction with the current state of the GOP, while still pursuing the same kind of mainstream conservative policies with which most Republican senators remain most comfortable.
Flake is facing reelection next year. Wouldn't that campaign serve as a chance for him to show America that an anti-Trumpist could win an election against a Trump-backed challenger? Wouldn't a victory in that election, in a state Trump barely won, show that a Republican can criticize Trump and still retain his constituents, therefore freeing him from those "political considerations" he just railed against? Why does taking a principled stance mean retreating from Republican politics?
There's no doubt that Flake is earnest in his beliefs when it comes to Trump. He refused to endorse the GOP nominee last year, and though he voted for the president's agenda almost all the time, that agenda has largely lined up with Republican priorities. (He also declined to endorse Hillary Clinton.)
But at the same time, Flake is unpopular in his own state—early polls have suggested he might struggle against Republican insurgent Kelli Ward, who has been endorsed by far-right hype man Steve Bannon and billionaire Breitbart backer Robert Mercer. Flake was already facing a very ugly primary battle (a GOP superPAC had already falsely implied Ward believed in chemtrails), followed by an uncertain general election against Democratic congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema. Flake is taking a stand, but he's also taking the easy way out.
On the other hand, Flake has said Trump is "inviting" a primary challenge in 2020. A loss in 2018 would tarnish his chances of being that challenger. But a principled conservative washing his hands of a dirty political scene, followed by a couple years of speaking engagements, maybe a book, possibly some sort of "listening tour" that takes him to Iowa...
In this scenario, Trump would have one fewer Republican opponent in the Senate, likely giving him a somewhat freer hand. But Flake would also have one desperate chance to steer the GOP back to relative sanity. And if that fails, he can probably always fall back on a lucrative career as a lobbyist or commentator.
That's all in the future, however. For now, it looks an awfully lot like Flake is both wrapping himself in the American flag and waving the white one. Breitbart, for one, didn't have a lot to say about Flake's speech, but its homepage headline cut to the chase: "WINNING: FLAKE OUT."
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