Senator Flake

The former Senator from Arizona speaking at the Union League Club of Chicago's George Washington's Birthday Celebration.
Over the weekend, I went to hear Senator Jeff Flake at the Union League Club. Every February, the club hosts a big dinner to celebrate George Washington’s birthday and invites a guest speaker. This year, Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke. This was the 131st first year the dinner was held.

I believe that whenever one has a chance to see a major public figure, one should take the opportunity.   Flake has just left the Senate after one term but he is definitely presidential material, and I will be surprised if he fails to run for president one day. He faces one major impediment to his ambition, however: at the moment he is very nearly a man without a party.

Flake comes across as a very poised, articulate, and thoughtful conservative. He describes himself as having fallen in love with politics at an early age. He served twelve years in the House of Representatives prior to his elevation to the Senate. Then along came Trump, the game changer who has cast Flake into a sea of difficulty.  Flake is one of the few Republicans in Congress to have broken openly with the president instead of going along with him in a sheepish and cowardly way.

Most Republican senators have tried to “find common ground” with the president as though doing so does not compromise their dignity. They have chosen to collaborate with him, even though it cheapens them by association. Trump treats the Senate in a high-handed and condescending manner. The Republican-led Senate has permitted itself to be humiliated. Republican senators endure Trump for the sake of party domination.

In the rare cases when the Republican majority finds that it cannot comply with Trump, its opposition to the president is tacit, as was true last week when Trump was shut out of the budget negotiations and told afterward that he must accept the negotiated deal. By and large, Republican senators have watched silently, however, as Trump has destroyed the soul of the “Grand Old Party.” It’s a peculiar situation, because it’s not clear whether most leading Republicans genuinely endorse Trump’s ideas. What they see is that Trump is charismatic and that his charisma is pumping up Republican power. Perhaps they believe they can outlast Trump, then return to what they were before.

Jeff Flake has no such illusions. He cannot stand with a president whose followers chant, “Lock her up.” During Flake’s tenure in Congress, he witnessed the gradual erosion of comity on Capitol Hill. When he began, it was still the custom of senators and representatives to move their families to Washington. Political differences tended to evaporate when members on either side of the aisle knew one another’s children by name. On weekends, representatives worshipped together and watched their kids play sports, developing friendships that softened the edges of partisan conflict.

That changed, Flake recalled, with Newt Gingrich’s speakership.  Gingrich told House Republicans to leave their families at home, because, on the weekends, he expected them to be back in their districts campaigning. As a result, the US now has “a commuter Congress,” with members flying in to work a few days a week.

Reluctant to treat Democrats as “the enemy” and unwilling to stand with the president, Flake has learned that Republicans in his state increasingly demand this very thing. Whereas “the economy” or “jobs” used to top the list of Republican voters’ concerns, “Where do you stand on Trump?” has displaced them, according to recent polls. Out of sync with both his base and GOP leadership, Flake saw re-election was futile.  He left the Senate last month.  In retirement, he seems to have embraced the philosophy of the first president we had gathered to honor. For, as that great man once observed,

If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we afterwards defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair. The rest is in the hands of God.

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Will #MeToo Be The Senate’s Waterloo?

Something decisive will occur in the Senate this week.  Not just a nomination hearing, but a political drama crystallizing in the minds of Americans the nature of a political party, and an institution.

In a hearing set for Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider whether Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a person of respectable character.  They will hear from a California psychology professor, Christine Blasey-Ford, who has come out of nowhere with a believable claim that in 1982 Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15.  Kavanaugh denies it.  Despite the perturbation the allegations are causing, Senate Republicans are intent on shielding the nominee.  Determined to treat whatever is disclosed in tomorrow’s hearing as irrelevant to his confirmation, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell anticipates that, after hearing from the two parties in a non-judicial setting, the committee will vote on the confirmation the very next day.

On the way to that vote, America will see how its leaders behave.  How do senators treat a woman whose personal story threatens the plans of President Trump and the Republican Party?  How considerate are they in sorting out this very unsavory #MeToo story, which the recent openness of women in discussing sexual assault is empowering?  To what extent have senators reckoned with the implications of sexual equality, or how badly are they out of step with the times?

President Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have dug in their heels, exploiting their every institutional advantage in an effort to mute a damning social narrative and push Kavanaugh through.  Trump’s White House has become Kavanaugh’s sanctuary.  He has been holed up there like a wanted man, arming himself with the latest in dis-ingenuity.  Kavanaugh’s proxies have spread out on the news circuit, broadcasting doe-eyed astonishment that anyone could fail to see Judge Kavanaugh as squeaky-clean.  Meanwhile, Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the judiciary committee, has announced that an outside interlocutor, Rachel Mitchell, a sex-crimes prosecutor from Arizona, will spare Republicans members the embarrassment of figuring out how to talk with Dr. Ford.  A brilliant fix for a hearing where the goal is to avoid hearing anything she says.

Ultimately—and this is what the president and Senate don’t seem to get—, Dr. Ford’s challenge to Kavanaugh’s confirmation isn’t about legalities.  It’s about whether Kavanaugh is acceptable to society.   It’s about whether Brett Kavanaugh, who is rumored to have put his hand over a girl’s mouth while attempting to overpower her, is a socially respectable being.  Is he a gentleman?  Today, American society is ostracizing harassers of women because their behavior is anathema to equality.  The buzz surrounding Kavanaugh is alarmingly loud.

Over the centuries, the Senate has often exemplified dignity.  It has upheld courtesy as an ideal, as a source of inner order, as the secret of its prestige.  Tomorrow, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be called on to receive “an inconvenient rememberer” courteously.  Yet, as #MeToo comes knocking, a blinkered and insensitive Senate cowers.

RELATED ARTICLES:
Caitlin Flanagan, “I Believe Her,” The Atlantic.
Caitlin Flanagan, “The Abandoned World of 1982,” The Altantic.

A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy