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.