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Jeff Flake Did the Right Thing, for Once

The Republican Senator's call for an FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh was a welcome moment of compromise, however small.

by Harry Cheadle
Sep 28 2018, 8:27pm

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The left has no good reason to like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. To many, he represents a particularly smarmy brand of Republican who denounces Donald Trump in vague, patriotic language while at the same time standing by and watching right-wing extremists run the country into the ground. When Flake announced he would not run for reelection in the middle of a long spiel about civic virtue, I wrote that he was "both wrapping himself in the American flag and waving the white one."

Those critiques are why it's important to note that on Friday, Flake did more than just wrap himself in the flag. At a Judiciary Committee vote on whether to advance Brett Kavaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, he called for a weeklong pause on the process so that decades-old allegations of sexual assault could be investigated by the FBI, a stipulation GOP leaders later agreed to.

An FBI investigation was exactly what Democrats have been calling for ever since Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when they were both teenagers. Republicans, on the other hand, had previously rejected that suggestion and settled on holding a hearing where Ford and Kavanaugh testified Thursday. But after two sexual assault survivors confronted Flake in an elevator before the vote Friday, and after conversations with his fellow senators, Flake apparently changed his mind.

"Senator Flake and I share a deep concern for the health of this institution and what it means to the rest of the world and to our country if we are unable to conduct ourselves respectfully and in a way that respects each other," Chris Coons, a Delaware Democratic senator who spoke to Flake, told the press.

This investigation might not uncover any new information that proves definitively whether or not Kavanaugh assaulted Ford. If inconclusive, it might merely provide Flake and others political cover to vote for Kavanaugh. But it would also represent a moment of compromise, however small, at a time when the Senate and the country as a whole has become dominated by partisanship. It would give a chance for (nominally) nonpartisan law enforcement officials to look into a serious matter rather than leaving it up to the whims of Congress, and we should cheer that.

Giving the FBI a deadline of a week seems arbitrary, of course, and it likely reflects Flake's wish to confirm Kavanaugh—or if not him, another arch-conservative judge—to the Supreme Court before the midterms. And like most non-Republicans, I'd rather Flake have voted against Kavanaugh full stop and instead called for Merrick Garland, Barack Obama's blocked nominee, to take a seat on the court. I'd also like Flake and the Republicans to take climate change seriously, and for my car to have an intelligent computer I could make wisecracks with all day.

But realistically, Flake was not going to oppose Kavanaugh outright—the two men share a right-wing agenda, and all Republican senators are under immense pressure from activists to confirm conservative justices no matter what. Under the circumstances, the path of least resistance would have been to join the rest of the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee and move Kavanaugh's nomination along. Instead, Flake chose to compromise. The result may not wholly satisfy partisans on either side, but that's what compromises mean. If the FBI investigation wraps up and Flake votes to confirm, this moment will be forgotten and the world will move on—his decision may be nothing more than a blip. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't praise him for it.

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