Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) personal relationship with Donald Trump has long been strained. In fact, the president has reportedly met with some Arizona Republicans about launching a primary challenge against the incumbent senator, who’s up for re-election next year.
It now appears the relationship between Trump and Flake will not be repaired, at least not anytime soon. The senator has written a new book in which he expresses concerns about what’s become of conservative politics, and Politico published a striking op-ed from Flake yesterday in which the Arizona Republican says his party has been “in denial” about the dangers Trump poses.
It was we conservatives who were largely silent when the most egregious and sustained attacks on Obama’s legitimacy were leveled by marginal figures who would later be embraced and legitimized by far too many of us. It was we conservatives who rightly and robustly asserted our constitutional prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government when a Democrat was in the White House but who, despite solemn vows to do the same in the event of a Trump presidency, have maintained an unnerving silence as instability has ensued.
To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was happening was anything approaching normalcy required a determined suspension of critical faculties. And tremendous powers of denial.
To his credit, Flake’s piece doesn’t pull its punches. The senator compares Trump to a biblical flood; he marvels at his party’s disinterest in the Russia scandal; and he takes aim at the GOP’s passivity when it comes to checks and balances against a White House run by partisan allies.
“If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals – even as we put at risk our institutions and our values – then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones,” Flake added. “If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?”
It took courage for the senator to write a provocative piece like this, and I’m glad it’s generating conversation. But as powerful as Flake’s words are, it’s not unreasonable to ask when, and whether, the Arizona Republican intends to back up the talk with action.
Towards the end of Flake’s Politico piece, for example, he put forward three recommendations for his party: (1) be willing to criticize Trump when the president does damage to “the Republican Party’s ability to grow and speak to a larger audience”; (2) honor the GOP’s long-standing free-trade commitments; and (3) “stand up for institutions and prerogatives, like the Senate filibuster.”
To put it charitably, this is a weak response to a political crisis. Flake seems to recognize the poison eating away at his party, but his proposed antidote is, at best, underwhelming.
And therein lies the problem. Flake’s warnings are compelling, and almost certainly sincere, but is he the best messenger for this message? The senator believes his party is in denial about the dangers Trump poses, but he’s nevertheless voted with Trump’s position more than 95% of the time this year, and there’s little to suggest Flake has used his office to push for new checks or limits on the White House.
Even on trade, one of the issues the senator singles out, when Trump nominated a protectionist-minded official to serve as the U.S. Trade Representative, Flake went along, voting to confirm Robert Lighthizer even when other GOP senators balked.
If Trump’s presidency represents a biblical flood, as Flake argued, the senator will need to do more than wring his hands and hope for the best.
Perhaps we’re supposed to see this as a turning point. Maybe Flake’s op-ed and book are his way of throwing down the gauntlet, acknowledging that he’s dutifully and obediently gone along with partisan demands up until now, but he’s prepared to change direction. Perhaps the senator is prepared to stop talking and start challenging Trump in new, forceful ways.
Or maybe Flake will continue to be a rhetorical thorn in the White House’s side, without actually doing anything meaningful about his concerns.