Remember first that Jeff Flake is a very conservative legislator. Scores aren’t everything, by a long shot, but nevertheless it’s worth noting that the Arizona Republican has a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. That puts him up there in Jeff Sessions territory (94) and ahead of Mitch McConnell (89) and Orrin Hatch (88).
In other words, he’s no moderate, even though the media describe him that way. Twenty years ago, someone with his politics would have the rightest of the right.
But whatever Flake is ideologically, he demonstrated with that astounding speech announcing his retirement Tuesday that he’s something we’re awfully short on these days: He is a republican. That small “r” wasn’t a typo. A small-r republican is someone who believes in republican virtues: civic good faith, citizen engagement, the notion that citizenship imposes upon us responsibilities, the idea that our first and last loyalty is to those best principles, not to a party, and certainly not to a single man.
I had no idea he had this in him, but man, was he eloquent. Read it if you haven’t. Or watch it. It’s a historic speech. It connects so movingly and deeply to the country’s best founding principles. He quoted James Madison’s remark that “ambition counteracts ambition”—meaning that the branches of government would balance one another by standing firm for the prerogatives and powers of their institution—and then asked: “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.”
And a few paragraphs later, boom: “The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters - the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”
There’s a lot more. Whatever he did before, whatever his ratings from this group or that, all Americans today owe him a debt of gratitude. He stated first principles in a way they are rarely stated these days. Maybe he could have done it sooner, but he did it. I salute him. And other Republicans (especially you, Paul Ryan) should look in the mirror with shame Wednesday morning.
But now we have to ask: What will the impact be? Here, the ennobling goosebumps the speech inspired melt away fast. Because as much as I liked that speech, you liked that speech, every decent American liked that speech, you know who liked it more? Donald Trump. Steve Bannon. Indecent Americans.
They liked it because he said I’m quitting. To them, he’s another scalp for them to nail to the wall of their train as it steams toward the destruction of the republican norms of which Flake spoke. He’s the second scalp they’ve claimed in the last month, with Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker’s announcement in late September that he, too, is hanging it up, unable to function in a way that will permit him to look himself in the mirror in this Trumpian surreality.
So things go in Tennessee, and maybe too in Arizona, that these two Senate seats will be filled by Trumpers. In Arizona, there are a couple of Democrats who might have a shot, depending on whom the Republicans decide to nominate. There’s a GOP Congresswoman named Martha McSally, who has expressed reservations here and there about Trump, private reservations that somehow went public. And that’s nice. But recently the Arizona Republic found that she was the most pro-Trump member of the state’s congressional delegation, voting with him 96 percent of the time. And in Tennessee, forget about it. Three or four Republican state legislators had already announced that they were running against Corker, each Trumpier than the last.
What does this mean? It means first that Flake and Corker can’t just drop this. If there was anything disappointing about Flake’s announcement, it was: Why is he retiring? Why not fight? Why not offer himself as the Republican willing to show his fellow Republicans that there’s another way, that they can take on Trump and survive? Arizona’s conservative, but it isn’t Alabama.
It will be important to see what Flake and Corker do now with their remaining months—and, indeed, what they decide to do after. They can spend these next few months pressing the matter of Trump’s unfitness for office, go around their states making the case, persuading voters, and thereby persuading their Senate colleagues to stand against the president’s indecency.
And it means second that those colleagues must step forward now. There was cover in a unified front of everyone laughing and forgetting; everyone saying cowardly things like well, that’s just who Donald is, ha ha. Yes, that is who he is. He’s a person who every day demeans the presidency, demeans the nation, demeans…them. But once the wall of silence is broken, the cover is blown.
“When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you speak up?’ What are we going to say?” Flake asked in his speech. He has answered. Will the others?