Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump, but has he been an effective one?
"Our presidency has been debased. By a figure who seemingly has a bottomless appetite for destruction and division,” Flake said to graduates of Harvard Law School last Wednesday. It was unclear whether he was intentionally referencing a Guns N’ Roses album.
Flake went on to lament that America “may have hit rock bottom.”
“If you have been wondering what the bottom looks like, this is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy at the same time,” he lamented.
If Trump were Hitler, then we should resist him at every turn. But he’s not Hitler, and so, intellectually honest conservatives (like Flake) support him when he is right and condemn him when he is wrong. This is almost a thankless endeavor, inasmuch as it alienates the left and the right.
But there is another criticism of Flake that, I think, is much more merited: He hasn’t moved the needle.
For all Flake’s talk, the only clear deliverable he has wrought is that he will no longer be in the U.S. Senate next year. If your goal is to provide checks and balances against Trumpism, this would seem to be a step backward. What is more, Flake’s exodus sends a signal to current and aspiring conservative politicians that there is no market for Flake-ism. He is a cautionary tale.
So what is the prudent or proper role of an intellectually honest conservative senator? Is speaking out publicly against a president of your own party an act of heroism, or grandstanding and virtue signaling? Is keeping your head down and working to nudge Trump toward the light side an act of cowardice, or a shrewder, more effective, strategy?
If one puts aside symbolic and rhetorical acts of courage, and looks instead for concrete deliverables, what has Flake gotten us—or him? A look at his own top priorities suggests the answer is…not much. Flake’s efforts to force a vote on DACA haven’t worked (perhaps he could have leveraged his vote on tax cuts more effectively?). Similarly, his insistence that Congress should be in charge of authorizing military force against ISIS was largely ignored.
Let’s compare his legislative prowess to Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who threatened to use his power to block all Department of Justice nominations after Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled he would punish states that legalized marijuana. President Trump promptly struck a deal with him. Would Flake have been better off following a similar tack?
Part of the problem is that Flake is temperamentally ill-suited to the role of rebel. The old Bill Clinton maxim about how it’s better to be “strong and wrong” than “weak and right” rings true. On paper, Flake’s comments are heroic, but, for some reason, they sound whiny and discordant coming from him. Some politicians are naturally disposed to optimism; others do indignation better. Flake is playing against type. In this defining moment, he’s trying to stand up as a resistance leader, but he has the persona of a boy scout. Consequently, it feels awkward and phony.
Is it possible that Flake might have been more effective at helping manage Trump’s tendencies had he played his cards differently? This is a choice between working with the reality of Trump/conservative populism (and trying to contain the damage) and working to rid the party of Trump/conservative populism (but risking the loss of all of your own influence, especially since partnering with the anti-Trump left creates its own problems).
But which strategy is nobler? This is not an academic question. Conservative politicians who are searching for ways to contain Trump’s authoritarian tendencies must wrestle with just how to do that. Is it better to publicly criticize him and end up like Flake, or to work quietly to cajole and influence him, and risk being seen as an enabler? These two things are pretty much mutually exclusive, but one could argue the nobility and virtue of either tactic.
America’s institutions are thankfully strong—which is a good thing, since the individuals charged with checking the executive still haven’t figured out how to do it. Conservatives who hope to someday take back their party must study how to win, and part and parcel to that is studying what has not worked. Jeff Flake is an honorable and decent public servant, but in the Trump era, that and $1.79 will buy you a bottle of Coke.