Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. 
Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP

Frustrated by GOP’s direction, Arizona’s Flake calls it quits

Updated

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has long been in an awkward position. Ahead of his re-election bid in an increasingly competitive state, in which there’s already a very credible Democratic challenger, Flake has managed to offend nearly every relevant constituency simultaneously.

On the left, the Republican senator has been an unyielding partisan, voting with the White House roughly 92% of the time, and refusing to play a meaningful and constructive role in the major policy debates of the day. On the right, Flake is a back-stabbing turncoat who’s publicly feuded with Donald Trump.

Indeed, the senator began clashing with Trump months before the election – after which the GOP president began taking steps to derail Flake’s career.

As it turns out, that won’t be necessary. As the Arizona Republic reported, Flake has decided to retire when his first term ends at the end of this Congress.

Flake said he has not “soured on the Senate” and loves the institution, but that as a traditional, libertarian-leaning conservative Republican he is out of step with today’s Trump-dominated GOP. “This spell will pass, but not by next year,” Flake said. […]

“Here’s the bottom line: The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take,” Flake told The Republic in a telephone interview. “It would require me to believe in positions I don’t hold on such issues as trade and immigration and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone.”

And while there are multiple angles to consider – how this will change the race in Arizona, who may or may not run in the open-seat contest, what Flake’s future plans may entail, etc. – what matters most today is the motivation behind Flake’s decision.

The senator spoke from the chamber floor this afternoon, making his retirement decision official, and describing this as a time “when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.”

“It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our – all of our – complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

“In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order – that phrase being ‘the new normal.’ But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue – with the tone set at the top.

“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

“None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that this is just the way things are now. If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that this is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences, and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal.

“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.”

Flake didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, but he didn’t have to. He added, “The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”

In case that wasn’t quite clear enough, Flake went to say the Republican Party risks becoming a “fearful, backward-looking” minority party., adding, “We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake.”

I can only assume that Trump will soon publish a series of poorly written tweets, celebrating Flake’s announcement, and helping prove the senator’s point.

Flake is only the second senator in either party to announce his retirement ahead of the 2018 cycle, following Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). That these two Republicans have been outspoken in their criticism of their party’s president is not a coincidence.

As for Flake’s insistence that it’s “time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” I’ll look forward to seeing the manifestation of that declaration. If the senator is prepared to use his office as a forceful check against Trump’s undemocratic excesses, Flake’s remaining 14 months in office will be time well spent.

If, however, he intends to respond to Trump through critical speeches, tweets and television interviews, all while casting knee-jerk votes in support of his party’s agenda, today’s vow may prove unsatisfying.