Condemning the nastiness of Republican politics in the era of President Donald Trump, Sen. Jeff Flake on Tuesday announced he will serve out the remainder of his term but will not seek re-election in 2018. The bombshell, which Flake, R-Ariz., intended to detail Tuesday afternoon on the Senate floor, will further roil Republican hopes of keeping the party's 52-seat Senate majority in the midterm elections of Trump's first term, when the president's party historically loses seats in Congress. It also likely will upend the race for Flake's seat. Flake, one of the Senate's more prominent critics of President Donald Trump, has been struggling in the polls. He told The Arizona Republic ahead of his announcement that he has become convinced "there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party."
Now that last part is intriguing because, rather than duck into the warm rhetorical embrace of Our Polarized Age, Flake says flatly that the Republican Party has become so nutso bananas that there’s no place for even a bog-standard Reagan conservative like himself to feel comfortable.
It is true that Flake had a long push up a dirt road to get re-elected, and it is also true that his departure, along with that of Brave Bob Corker, accelerates the process by which the Republican majority in the Senate is transforming itself into a babbling replica of the Republican majority in the House, a process that is evidence enough of the virulence and the spread of the prion disease that has been eating away at the party’s higher functions for four decades.
But, still, this strikes me as a signifying event, if only because Republicans like Flake and Corker apparently see leaving office the only viable response to the fact that the president* is steering their party—and the country—over a cliff. If there ever was needed more evidence that movement conservatism, in its not-entirely-insane persona, is a spent force in American politics, watching Flake and Corker go scarpering away from public service would be it. Reaganism is long gone, and its pale progeny has been rendered irrelevant in the face of outright political thuggery. For Republican conservatives, it is Trump or the abyss.
Among Republican primary voters, there's overwhelming support for Trump's positions and "behavior," Flake said, and one of their top concerns is whether a candidate is with the president or against him. While Flake said he is with Trump on some issues, on other issues he is not. And Trump definitely views him as a foe, having denounced Flake publicly and called him "toxic" on Twitter. "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."
These are noble sentiments, to be sure, although one could ask Flake in all good faith where in the hell he’s been over the 40 years of Republican politics that made Trumpism inevitable. One also feels constrained to point out that, unlike his colleague from Arizona, John McCain, Flake voted to strip millions of Americans of their healthcare, and that one of his last acts before hitting the silk was to vote on a budget resolution that is as full of moonshine as any Republican budget proposal has been since the party decided to take Arthur Laffer seriously.
Besides, it’s hard to parse Flake’s logic as anything but abject surrender to the monster that finally chewed itself out of the lab. As he said in his speech today to the Senate:
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.
Is he offering his career up as a blood sacrifice? Is he offering it up as an appeal to conscience? “See what you’ve done, you coarse and compromised moral authority, you have deprived the Republic of me, Jeff Flake.” There not having been much of a conscience in the Republican Party at least since it first cut a paycheck to Lee Atwater, Flake is pretty much shouting down a well here.
“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.
Again, I find it hard to reconcile this existential threat to the country’s politics with Flake’s decision to leave office instead of fighting it. He recognizes the problem and has decided, with quite a bit of thought, that he doesn’t have the belly to fight it. Fair enough, but please, spare us the anguished cri de poulet.
Here, today, I stand to say that we would better serve the country and better fulfill our obligations under the constitution by adhering to our Article 1 “old normal” – Mr. Madison’s doctrine of the separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 – held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract each other when necessary. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote. But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency? Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course not, and we would be wrong if we did.
As it happens, Mr. Madison practiced politics in America when American politics really was the wild kingdom. He fought through a Constitution, and he fought it through to ratification, out-arguing, among other people, Patrick Henry in Virginia along the way. The press of the time was partisan, vituperative, and truthless, and Madison gave as good as he got. And, when he was long retired, and President Andrew Jackson asked him to rebut the nullification theories of John C. Calhoun, Mr. Madison saddled up one more time.
I mention all this because, apparently, Jeff Flake believes that the way to reassert the balance of power between the national legislature and a national executive with a narcissistic crackpot at the helm is to get the hell out of Dodge before the roof caves in. Good profile, lacks courage.
His party is bound to get crazier, and the president* is completely around the bend. The most prominent Republican candidate for Jeff Flake’s seat is an osteopath named Kelli Ward who, in the past, has been chemtrail curious, at least as a constituent service, and who has popped in to chat with Alex Jones from time to time, and who has flirted with nullification as regards federal gun laws, and whose candidacy has been endorsed by both the president* and Steve Bannon, last heir to House Harkonnen.
It is possible, even likely, that the Republican “establishment” will find some conventional conservative to throw in there in order to keep Ward out of the general election, but I wouldn’t take odds on that succeeding. But none of that is Jeff Flake’s problem any more. It’s just ours.