Let Arizona Senator Jeff Flake be a lesson to all: you can’t stand against President Donald Trump and be a good Republican.
Not in this political environment.
Flake announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election. In reality, it was his only opportunity to save face. He was going to be beaten in his party primary in a few months, which would have been an unusual and embarrassing blow to a sitting senator.
His announcement was also a stunning indictment of the Republican Party, and of America’s current political mood.
A story in The Atlantic headlined Flake’s announcement like this: “The Arizona senator gambled that voters would choose civility and responsible governance over Trump. On Tuesday, he folded.”
Hours before Flake’s announcement, 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.”
So how did it get to this point for Arizona’s junior senator, who once enjoyed solid approval ratings? Who, at the tender age of 54, was supposed to be an up-and-comer in the Republican folds?
Simply. Trump happened.
Flake was an original Never-Trumper. Once Trump occupied the White House, Flake became one of his staunchest critics. It cost him support. Ultimately, it will cost him his job.
With Trump, there is no room for dissension. It’s why the president has openly hinted at forcing news outlets critical of him to close, why he has warred with members of his own cabinet amid unprecedented administration strife, and why he has thrown several of his own party’s ranking members of Congress under the bus — including Flake and Tennessee Senator Bob Corker.
Trump and his cohorts — like Breitbart’s Steve Bannon — want lock-step admiration, not free-flowing ideas. Ignoring the long-term welfare of the party that sent him to Washington, Trump openly detests the Republican establishment. So any time a member of his party dares to voice an opinion that differs from his own, Trump takes to Twitter in an effort to take them down, 140 characters at a time.
The Trump-Bannon machine was on the verge of ousting Flake, forcing what is essentially a resignation. His surprise announcement came just weeks after his Tennessee colleague, Corker, did the same.
Corker was hardly a Never-Trumper. He supported the president’s campaign, was once considered a candidate to join Trump’s cabinet, and had openly supported the president on many occasions. But he was also one of the least reluctant Republicans to criticize Trump when criticism was warranted, and that placed him in the president’s crosshairs.
Corker’s criticism of Trump ratcheted up in August, when he first said that the White House is in a “downward spiral” and later said that Trump “has not demonstrated he understands the character of this nation,” nor the stability and competence “that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.”
Trump fired back, with his usual insult-laced tweets that seem to handle the truth in a questionable manner. Less than a month later, Corker announced he would not seek re-election.
That’s two down, and you can’t help wondering who’s next.
But, first, it’s important to step back to Flake. Trump — with Bannon’s compliance — managed to sabotage the Republican primary process by turning a significant swath of the conservative electorate against the so-called establishment. Now, Bannon is setting his sights on overthrowing the establishment at the congressional level . . . this time with Trump’s compliance. Bannon does the dirty work on the ground while Trump plants Twitter land mines.
That’s what makes Flake’s exit particularly noteworthy. He is hardly an establishment Republican. As The Hill noted Tuesday afternoon, “Jeff Flake was the Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool.” Lest we’ve forgotten, it was Flake — as a Republican congressman during the George W. Bush era — who forced a reduction in the pork projects that the GOP had grown fond of. He sought a seat on the House Appropriations Committee because he wanted to end earmarks — not because he had pork projects of his own that needed funding. So steadfast was he in his fight against pork projects that he lost the endorsement of three of the five mayors in his district when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2013.
In other words, Flake represented much of what Trump would later claim to support — without the anger and vitriol. (“It’s not enough to be conservative anymore. It seems that you have to be angry about it,” Flake told CNN on Tuesday.)
But because he dared to criticize the president, he is soon to be the ex-senator from Arizona.
Corker was a rising star in the Republican Party, once a dark-horse candidate to be Trump’s vice president pick and rumored to be a potential future candidate for the White House. Now he, too, is in the process of exiting politics.
And make no mistake: the Republican Party is weaker without the likes of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. Long after the star-power of Trump has faded, the GOP will need the steady guidance of seasoned veterans like the two of them.
An even more pressing concern? The Republicans’ Senate majority is tenuous. The GOP holds just 52 seats. It’s unlikely that a Democrat will win election in Tennessee, but one certainly could in Arizona, which increases the likelihood that Republicans lose their Senate majority next year. And if Trump thinks he’s having a difficult time pushing through key pieces of legislation now, just wait until the opposition party has the strength of a congressional majority.
This is the Republican quagmire. Trump’s popularity hovers just above the pits, with somewhere around six in every 10 Americans opposed to him. His chances of re-election in 2020 are frail, based on that alone. Progressives are never going to agree with Trump’s policies, but it isn’t his policies that have dampened his approval rating so much as his vitriol. His self-aggrandizement, his self-centered approach and his withering attacks on critics are hallmarks of a narcissist who finds himself at odds with independents and even moderate Republicans. Yet, his conservative base remains loyal enough that any effort by members of his party to rope him in will end just like Flake’s case, and Corker’s. The president will label them dissidents — in Trump’s eyes, you’re either for him or against him, party be damned — and his supporters will break out the tar and the feathers.
In a nutshell, Trump’s erratic behavior places future GOP electoral successes in jeopardy, and efforts by Republicans to be the voice of reason leads them to becoming outcasts within their party. But it’s worse than that. Most of the Republicans who’ve drawn Trump’s ire — like Paul Ryan — remain in positions of GOP leadership. But Trump’s withering attacks, which are launched in blocks of 140 characters, have undermined the conservative electorate’s faith in them.
To fully illustrate this quagmire, let Flake’s remarks from his scathing Senate address on Tuesday sink in:
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so longed defined itself by its believe in those things.”