Jeff Flake isn't brave, he's helpless -- and he doesn't understand why

  • Sen. Jeff Flake announced he would retire after his term ends in 2018.
  • He said running again would force him to campaign on a platform he couldn’t defend.
  • But Flake has done little beyond rhetoric to oppose President Donald Trump.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona will retire from the Senate because, as he said in his speech announcing his decision to leave, winning a Republican primary would require him to defend things he can’t defend in good conscience. He knows he can’t be renominated in President Donald Trump’s party.

The weird thing about this is, Flake has not broken significantly with Trump on policy. When Trump has needed votes in the Senate to pass agenda items and to confirm nominees, Flake has been there to support him.

I don’t mean to suggest Flake should have shown his resistance to Trump by supporting Obamacare or opposing tax cuts. Flake is very conservative. But as I wrote in July, Flake has made no significant effort to use his official powers to block Trump’s agenda even on issues where he sits to the president’s right, like trade.

Instead, Flake’s opposition to Trump has consisted almost entirely of complaining, and now he’s not even bothering to seek reelection to the Senate, where he could do something about whatever Trump is doing.

Flake behaves like he is helpless. That’s because he is helpless. And he should think some more about why he is so helpless.

Flake is helpless because there’s no real constituency in America for what he favours: low taxes and spending, openness to immigration and trade, international collaboration where America honours its commitments, and polite public behaviour.

There is one coalition of voters that favours a much larger and more active government than Flake wants. Many of these voters share a portion of Flake’s values (they may share his commitment to openness and politeness, for example) but they also oppose him on various social issues where he is conservative and they are liberal. Flake does not have a home in the Democratic Party with these voters.

The other coalition of voters is the one Flake relied on all along to get elected. But it turns out they don’t care very much about some of the policy ideas Flake thought were important. And they outright oppose him on others, like immigration. And many of these voters have come to view nastiness and crudity as virtues, since they think politeness norms have been weaponised by an establishment that wants to exclude them — or just because they are jerks.

It was essentially an accident that Flake and elected officials like him were able to harness the Republican electoral coalition for so long to back an agenda that excluded policies those voters cared about (like immigration restriction) and included ones they opposed (like cutting Medicare). Now that’s over, and he has nowhere to go.

A look at the non-helpless anti-Trump senators gives a clue about why Flake can’t seem to do anything about the things he cares about.

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins have broken extensively with Trump to much greater effect than Flake. Their defections have worked because their formulation of personal decency plus policy moderation is saleable to a large slice of the electorate.

Winning an election from their part of the political spectrum involves running up the middle, which is a little more complicated than being a normal, ideological party nominee. But Murkowski has figured out how to make it work in Alaska, and Collins could probably be reelected as an independent if Maine Republicans didn’t want to nominate her anymore.

Collins and Murkowski are able to be a lot more soft-spoken than Flake; their anti-Trump actions have done most of the talking. They have had a lot of effect on policy in Trump’s America. And they don’t seem to intend to leave the Senate anytime soon.

Flake should wonder: Why am I so unpopular? Why am I so powerless? Why have most of the people who I thought agreed with me rejected me in favour of this unconservative, amoral buffoon? Why don’t I have the quiet power Lisa Murkowski has?

The answer is that Murkowski’s politics have a constituency and his don’t.

Flake should consider that ideas with no natural constituency might be bad ideas. If “traditional Republicans” could only ever be elected by people who didn’t care about their animating ideals, people who could be tempted to support a man like Trump, maybe those ideals were never any good to begin with.

And maybe the willingness of Republican voters to choose a president of such poor character and temperament suggests those voters have always had poor judgment — including when they elected Jeff Flake.

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