We’ll get the politics out of the way first; Jeff Flake was probably going to lose the Republican primary in Arizona, and likely the general election if he survived the primary. The anti-anti-Trump right was swift to note this, and they’re not entirely wrong. Flake said it himself in his remarks. Kelli Ward, like some creature born from Dr. Bannon’s laboratory, is a perfect confection for the Trumpist GOP base, and was going drag Flake through a year of Breitbartean hell. Although left-ish by Arizona standards, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is colorful, smart, and will raise a metric ton of national money, and would have been a meaningful challenge in the general.
That doesn’t make the speech Flake delivered on the Senate floor today any less relevant or important. Some days, and today was one, a man speaks from the heart and the gut with the liberating freedom that the political stakes don’t matter all that much any more. Some days, a man lays out the case for our better angels with a ragged catch of emotion in his voice that tells us the loss he’s expressing isn’t about him. It’s about us.
When Senator Flake stood in the well of the Senate today and gave his extraordinarily heartfelt and powerful speech, it was a reminder that in an age where our political dialogue has increasingly been reduced to the 140-character rantings of a President with an indifferent education and a defective moral compass, words spoken for history still matter. It was a reminder that we were not always this ugly, seething mass of political malice disguised as “shaking up Washington,” but the people of a nation founded on better ideals. Our politics weren’t always driven by an inferiority complex that turned a party dedicated to liberty into a party dedicated to bitching about CNN.
Those painful reminders in the speech of what we stood for once, as a party, as a movement, as a people and a nation would strike deep in the hearts and minds of good men and women. Washington today though, is short of those in my Republican party. Those who privately despise and fear Trump heard Flake today and loathed their own weakness. Those who tolerate Trump for the sake of “the agenda” (whatever that means in the era of Trump’s ever-changing moods and endless chain of catastrophic self-inflicted failures) tried to silence the moral fire alarms screaming in their minds. Those who support Trump aren’t worth worrying about; you can’t shame the shameless, or educate the wilfully mulish.
It was the speech of a better man, not a beaten man. It was a speech of a man who stood up for something. Unlike the vast majority of men and women in serving Washington today, Jeff Flake didn’t hide his critique behind off-the-record quotes, whispered concerns, furrowed brows, and promises the famed Trump pivot is coming and Paradise is near.
It was a speech that the burn-it-down crowd will ignore, focusing solely on the short-term outcome, believing that their movement to purify the party in Trump’s image is coming into its own. They’re happy with the fallen American standard of leadership: early morning golden-toilet rage-tweeting, political beefing, phony wall-building, and the table scraps of regulatory rollbacks. Oh, and “but Gorsuch!”
The real winners here may be the Democrats; open seats are much easier to win than races against incumbents, and now Arizona is open, and 2018’s tough map of only eight GOP Senate seats in play. Arizona’s younger, rapidly growing Hispanic population, an influx of California migrants, Trump’s abysmal approval ratings, and Arizona’s affordable media markets make it a must-compete state.
Trump won Arizona by 3.5% over Hillary Clinton, the worst showing since Bob Dole lost to Bill Clinton by 2.2% in 1996. About a million of Arizona's 4.6 million eligible voters are Hispanic. That’s 21% of the voting-age population. This isn’t Alabama, kids.
Perhaps Kelli Ward will emerge as an articulate, graceful, and persuasive candidate who can address voters beyond the narrow confines of the comments section of the Trumpentariat’s lunatic Facebook conspiracy pages. Then again, perhaps a naked leprechaun will perform unicorn dressage on my lawn tonight under the pale moonlight.
Some inflection points in our political history are sharp-edged, clear in memory and consequence. Some take longer to see and understand. Flake’s speech is worth watching and reading, because although Trump’s base and his allies will mock it, I am certain the judgment of history will not.