Jeff Flake is the junior United States Senator from Arizona. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in International Relations and spent time as a missionary in South Africa. Later he served as the Executive Director of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, and was elected to the House of Representatives six times beginning in 2000 before his run for the Senate. Flake is very conservative, believing that government’s involvement in the lives of individual citizens should be minimized and that strangling tax revenues and spending is the best way to ensure this. He is pro-life, opposed to gun control and voted against disaster relief spending for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. So one would not expect Jeff Flake to be openly critical of a Republican President whose election in 2016 made this conservative nirvana more likely. But Jeff Flake is a man of principle and he has unloaded on Donald Trump.
Flake’s opposition to Trump began during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Although he does not acknowledge a vote for Hilary Clinton, Flake openly admits he did not vote for Trump. He then opposed Trump’s travel ban, declaring that it was unacceptable when even lawful permanent residents could be stopped at the border.
Flake is up for reelection in 2018, so he has recognized that his maverick positions require some explaining. He has attempted to do this in a book recently published entitled Conscience of a Conservative, a title he borrowed from Barry Goldwater’s famous manifesto.
Flake’s opening salvo in the book is a description of the “madman” strategy employed by Richard Nixon to make Ho Chi Minh believe that we might actually drop a nuclear bomb on North Vietnam. In a breathtaking observation about Trump, Flake says “there is a significant difference between appearing to have problems with impulse control and actually having impulse-control problems.” Flake does not let up from there.
Perhaps most destructive of all, we haven’t ever had an occupant of the White House who so routinely calls true reports that irk him “fake news” while giving his seal of approval to fake reports that happen to support his position. This is tremendously damaging . . . Only in anti-democratic propaganda states do we see “alternative facts” successfully compete with the truth for primacy.
Flake not only takes aim at Trump, he is also critical of the partisan gridlock in Congress and the behavior of his own party. He says that the “impulse to dehumanize, to ascribe the worst possible motives to people who in normal times would be regarded not as ‘the enemy’ but merely as political opponents, is a signal that something is terribly wrong.” This applies, of course, not only to Republicans but to all of us these days. In a chapter entitled “Country Before Party” he speculates that Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan might not be welcome in the Republican Party of today because they were pragmatic and willing to compromise to achieve important national goals. In a particularly powerful passage he argues that
populist resentments may feel good in the moment, but indulging them is destructive, and self-destructive, and offers no solutions to the very real problems that gave rise to the resentments in the first place. Manipulating populist resentments is the oldest trick in the book, and it is shameful. When we allow ourselves to prioritize winning at all costs over what is best for our country . . . then we have chosen our political interests over the public interest and in so doing we inflict great harm on the country.
This is certainly refreshing and welcome. But it will not endear Flake to the harder right elements in his own Party. He now has a challenger in the upcoming Arizona Republican primary, who called his refusal to support Trump “treacherous” and describes Flake’s policies as “America Last.” Trump won in Arizona over Clinton by only 49% to 45% — a far smaller margin than in West Virginia and the narrowest win for a Republican since 1996. So Flake will have both a vigorous Democratic opponent and his hard right challenger to consider. On top of this, his popularity rating in Arizona last fall was only 35%. All this has led The Atlantic magazine to wonder whether Jeff Flake is “too nice” for the Senate, noting that he sometimes seems as if “he has just crash-landed here in a time machine from some bygone era of seersucker suits and polite disagreements.”
It is hard for a progressive to wish a man like Flake political success. His views on most things are somewhat extreme, as befits his libertarian outlook. But on closer inspection he can’t be so easily dismissed. Indeed, he may be an example of a middle course like the one Joe Manchin has attempted to take. For example, Flake is a globalist, believing that we all prosper through international trade agreements and calling for a renegotiation of NAFTA instead of a complete rejection of the treaty. He also flatly rejects Trump’s populist anti-immigrant stance and supported an end to the Cuban Trade Embargo.
Whatever can be said about Jeff Flake’s political views, it is plain he is driven by principle. It is hard to say the same about Joe Manchin. The best that can be said about Manchin’s behavior in the Senate is that he consistently votes in a way he thinks will help West Virginians. But his judgments on this are sometimes debatable, such as with his unflagging support for the coal industry. On matters affecting the nation more than the state, Manchin’s only “principle” is political survival. One can’t help wish for a West Virginia Senator who is willing openly to stand for country over party, for respect of the opponent even during disagreement, and for basic decency despite the political risk. Maybe this is the true middle course that, in the end, will be rewarded by voters.