There have been some stunning breaks in the Senate Republican conference in the last couple of weeks, but none have been more bold and zealous than the announced retirements of Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Flake has a lifetime score of 93 from the American Conservative Union and an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. For anyone to say Flake isn’t conservative or “in line” with the values of the people he represents, they’re kidding themselves. This is a personality war.
Flake wrote a book earlier this year assaulting the fake conservatives who have taken the Republican Party into the depths of nationalism, xenophobia, protectionism, and fear mongering. This is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and their friends have pushed our politics into the Brexit style ideology of Mao and Stalin.
The biggest problem for Flake, though, isn’t because he wasn’t conservative enough for these people, it’s because he spoke out about their level of discourse. His book was the nail in the coffin, and he was well on his way to being thumped in the primary next year by a conspiracy theory touting state senator.
That led to a surprising announcement in the Senate yesterday that Flake would not seek re-election next year, in part, because the party he has long been a part of no longer wants him. He told the Arizona Republic “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”
It’s a truly remarkable statement for a conservative Republican Senator to say such condemning things about his own party. You can go watch his speech here if you want, though it isn’t a stunning piece of oratory. Trump sycophants will claim this is anti-Trump rhetoric. The media today will follow suit. But, this isn’t an indictment of President Trump. In fact, Flake has voted in agreement with the President most of the time in the past ten months. It’s about the level of discourse.
I found this the most telling part of Flake’s speech:
None of us here is indispensable nor were even the great figures of history who toiled at these very desks, in this very chamber, to shape the country that we have inherited. What is indispensable are the values that they consecrated in Philadelphia and in this place, values which have endured and will endure for so long as men and women wish to remain free.
What is indispensable is what we do here in defense of those values. A political career does not mean much if we are complicit in undermining these values. I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today.
I will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healthy enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived. His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time and are now no less in ours.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Tennessee Senator Bob Corker also recently announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Though, that was less about his ability to win (he got 65% in 2012) than it was an expert on foreign affairs having enough. He spoke up and has been attacked by the President multiple times on Twitter. Because everything is smarter on Twitter.
It’s up to all of us, not just the politicians like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and John McCain, to speak up against this brand of discourse. Speak up when someone in your group makes a disparaging comment about Mexicans. Learn about the issues like trade instead of just listening to criticism of things like NAFTA and KORUS. That doesn’t mean you can’t support the President when he’s right, you should. But we must step up and make the political arena a place for grown-ups again.
Patrick Pfingsten is an award-winning journalist, political consultant, and PR expert. You can find him on Twitter @pfingsten1 or email him at email@example.com.