DI Politics Chat: Jeff Flake and the Anti-Trump Republican Politician

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Jeff Flake makes his exit. Photo: Win McNamee

Republican Jeff Flake, whose first term as senator from Arizona will end in 2018, made a surprise announcement yesterday that he was going to retire rather than seek to be reelected. In a speech delivered on the Senate floor, he criticized Donald Trump’s Republican Party as having departed from conservative principle and sober governance.

Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz chat about what Flake’s retirement tells us about the Republican Party and how Democrats should think about Republican anti-Trump politicians.

What does Flake’s retirement mean for his seat?

Ed: Much more likely to stay Republican now, though Arizona could be a Democratic-trending state.

Jon: That maybe a more mainstream Republican than Kelli Ward enters the race, and thus stands a better chance.

Jon: But I think the Democrats will win it.

Eric: Yeah. As things stood, I think there was an argument that Ward was the *more* electable general election candidate. The number of voters who want their senator to publicly disparage the Republican president while doing virtually everything in his power to advance that president’s policies is rather small.

Flake poisoned his own image with the Trumpen proletariat with his book, did the same with everyone else with his support for the GOP’s health-care bill. Ward, by contrast, at least appeared capable of rallying the base.

But now, they’ll ostensibly have an alternative to “Chemtrail Kelly” who can feign respect for Trump, in a more mainstream way.

What does Flake’s retirement tell us about the Republican Party?

Ed: It’s significant that a self-consciously “movement conservative” senator from Barry Goldwater’s state lost his “movement conservative” base to Trump, whom nobody in GOP politics took very seriously two years ago. “Conservatism,” the brand nearly all Republicans want, has moved a long way very rapidly in Trump’s direction.

There are, of course, important continuities on all sorts of policies. But it’s still stunning.

Eric: Yeah. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that Jeff Flake’s brand of conservatism has very little to offer the movement’s contemporary constituents.

The party’s voters skew less affluent than they used to — a lot of suburban professionals sought refuge in blue America over the past couple decades, while less affluent white rural voters took their places.

Ed: And it’s why ostensibly similar senators like Ted Cruz can’t get close enough to Trump these days.

Eric: But also, post-2008, reverence for free-market capitalism has a much smaller constituency than it used to. What conservatism has to offer a lot of these voters is an affirmation of white identity/status, and little else. It makes sense that whoever’s doing that the loudest would gain the upper hand.

Jon: It’s almost as if there’s a cartel to limit the supply of populism to the base, and Trump has broken it.

Ed: Yeah, in the past Republicans have used populism carefully and strategically … you think of Poppy Bush unleashing Lee Atwater.

Eric: Yeah. And yet, we’re still talking about a marketing strategy more than a policy agenda, for the most part. The movement conservatives have by and large retained hegemony in the party over domestic policy.

Jon: That’s where the anger at McConnell comes in. They’re still delivering traditional Republican policy, and somebody has to be blamed for it, so they’re blaming McConnell.

Eric: Well, it’s a perfect storm, because McConnell is also taking heat (from the donor class) for not quite delivering those traditional policies.

Ed: That’s one way to look at it. Another is that Trump is giving traditional constituencies what they want (tax cuts and deregulation for the business elites, judges for the conservative evangelicals) to make the party his very own, and also to give him a very wide berth for whatever he’s got up his sleeve for the future.

I’m not thinking so much of heterodox policies like infrastructure investment, but maybe his trade agenda.

Eric: Jane Mayer’s recent New Yorker piece made a strong, implicit case that we’re already living under the Pence presidency. Trumpism would need a more competent leader than Trump to actually change the party’s policy orthodoxy. Right now, they’re outsourcing nearly everything to Pence and his Koch cadres.

Ed: If Trump’s at 90 percent among Republicans, who’s going to stop him from a trade or currency war with China?

Eric: I think the guardrail there is the pleasure Trump takes at seeing green arrows in a stock ticker. If we enter a little recession and someone convinces him it’s because of China, though …

What should be done with GOP politicians fleeing or criticizing Trump?

Jon: I think it depends on the nature of the fleeing or criticism. Some Republicans have more fundamental criticisms than others. [U.S. Senator Bob] Corker is focusing on fitness to conduct foreign policy. I think he might be laying the groundwork for a 25th Amendment challenge. And he’s certainly going to make it harder for Trump to build support for a war if he starts one.

Eric: Yeah. I think Corker’s willingness to say, in blunt, public terms, what his colleagues are reportedly saying all the time in private — that Trump is a national security threat — is good and useful.

Ed: Sure, but let’s don’t have any misapprehensions that he has any actual power. It’s not a coincidence that Corker and Flake are on their way out the door.

I think a lot of progressives keep imagining that this is a “Emperor’s New Clothes” situation, where if one or two Republicans speak up, the whole Trump edifice will crumble. There’s actually zero evidence of that.

By any tangible measurement, Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, not some car-jacker who will be thrown into the street at the first opportunity.

Jon: No doubt.

Eric: The concern for me in celebrating anti-Trump Republicans is this: The threat that Trump poses to our republic, democratic norms, and security is garish — and for the nearly 60 percent of the unconverted, unmistakeable.

The threat to our nation that the modern Republican Party poses is more subtle. But no less real — and not just because it gave us Trump. A party that comes within one turn in John McCain’s mood of passing a trillion-dollar cut to federal health-care spending — without holding a single hearing, shielding bills’ from public scrutiny until hours before the vote – all to appease libertarian billionaires who subscribe to an ideology that is, in many respects, anti-democratic … this is a crisis on par with Trump.

Jon: But Republicans will be needed to help curb some of his abuses.

Ed: I suspect the people inside the administration who know how to cope with him will be more useful than GOP members of Congress on that front. I’m not seeing a lot of signs that we are an abuse or two away from GOP support for impeachment or the 25th Amendment. That’s just not happening.

Jon: Not an abuse or two, no. But an abuse or 12? Maybe. Trump wanted to fire Mueller. He was persuaded not to because of … what? Not Democrats, I suspect.

Ed: You think it was senators? I think it was the people around him every day.

Jon: But what did they persuade him to be afraid of if he did it?

Eric: I don’t know. State attorneys general would have been a rational warning though, and political blowback in terms of public opinion.

Ed: Maybe greater public attention to what Mueller is finding.

Jon: If Republicans united to support him, public opinion would have polarized along normal lines.

Ed: For all I know, Trump is hiding something that if it came out the entire GOP would throw him over the side. I just don’t think one or two marginal senators are going to make a difference one way or the other.

Eric: Conveying to the public the abnormality of the Republican Party is a really important task, one that could have helped prevent Trump’s election in the first place. And to the extent that liberals champion Corker and Flake — or any other Republican legislator who supported the repeal process for their criticisms of Trump — we make that task more difficult.

Ed: Maybe this is our difference of opinion, Jon — I think Republicans ARE united behind Trump. Corker and Flake really don’t matter except insofar as their votes on legislation matter before they are shown the door. They are the north ends of a southbound brontosaurus, to borrow a phrase from Bill James.

Jon: I’m describing a potential opposition that probably has dissuaded him from steps like firing Mueller. Privately expressed opposition could be brought to bear.

Eric: It’s true that the Senate voting to stay in session to prevent him from appointing a new AG was a significant gesture of independence. But it happened amidst progressives shouting that the GOP was trying to commit mass murder through Obamacare repeal.

Maybe we’re not actually arguing about whether liberals should make a home for anti-Trump Republicans in the Democratic Party. But my sense is liberals’ posture towards such GOPers will be largely irrelevant to whether congressional Republicans ever say enough is enough.

Ed: This is one of those conversations where I hope you are right and I’m wrong, Jon.

Jeff Flake and the Anti-Trump Republican Politician