Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona is a man on a mission. His goal: to turn back the clock and bring the Republican Party back to its roots, to a time before Donald Trump hijacked American politics and cloaked the GOP with a populist, anti-establishment veneer. Indeed, ‘make Republicans great again’ may make for a decent slogan in the event he tosses his hat in the 2020 scrum.
Flake knows from experience how powerful and intoxicating the tribalism engulfing American politics has become. Relatively popular with his constituents with an immaculate record as a fiscal conservative, Flake has represented the state of Arizona in one way or another since the early 2000s. His colleagues may disagree with his hard-line approach to spending and taxes, but they certainly can’t quibble with the sincerity of his beliefs or his personal integrity. Flake is in many ways the anti-Trump, a guy who can sit in the room with a liberal Democrat, hold a press conference after the meeting, and not put blow up the entire negotiation with an intemperate remark. Where Trump is unpredictable, a braggart, and disdainful of political correctness (and proud of it!), Jeff Flake is calm, level-headed, and careful with his words. One leading think-tank scholar told me several months back that he is a damn impressive man to meet — so impressive that he may be presidential material.
In the end, however, none of those attributes served Flake well politically. Republican primary voters are so enamoured with Donald Trump’s approach to politics and so entertained by his star power that even an incumbent like Flake who isn’t fully on the Trump Train is at risk of losing his seat. Flake understood this almost immediately, choosing to retire rather than go through the humiliation of losing to a Trump-style populist.
Flake has tended to dismiss speculation about a hypothetical presidential run with a wave of his hand. But it’s almost inconceivable that he isn’t at least thinking about the prospect. Even before his last-minute holdup of Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, Flake was making national news with heartfelt speeches on the Senate floor lamenting the state of the American republic. He has molded himself into the anti-Trump crusader, the only man in the Republican Party willing to stand up in the Senate and decry the president’s castigation of the press as the ‘enemy of the people.’ While his other Republican colleagues are keeping their heads down, petrified of upsetting Trump, Flake is exploiting his status as a soon-to-be-retired politician by travelling the country and delivering addresses about what the GOP once was: a party of tolerance, principle, and free trade. ‘We Republicans have given into the terrible tribal impulse that first mistakes our opponents for our enemies, and then we become seized with a conviction that we must destroy that enemy,’ Flake told a group of students at St. Anselm’s College in New Hampshire this week.
Now that he’s quitting politics in a few months, Flake will have to make a decision about whether he wants to jump back in. If he doesn’t decide to run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020, he will have an opportunity to do so in 2024.
But if Flake’s ultimate goal is to return the GOP back to a pre-Trump age, he may quickly discover that the anti-establishment tide of Trumpism is like a tsunami destroying everything in its path. You may be able to construct levees and build dunes to mitigate the impact, but the tsunami will still make landfall.
Right now, Jeff Flake is the man in the wilderness of today’s Republican Party, one wholly owned and operated by Trump.