Jeff Flake, Complicity, and Political Courage
Jeff Flake announced his retirement from the United States Senate yesterday with a somber but powerful speech about the current state of affairs in our country. He spoke of the complicity of he and his fellow Republicans in bringing it about, and his disgust with himself and his colleagues for turning a blind eye to what they know to be destructive.
Flake has gained a reputation for being a somewhat vocal critic of the Trump administration, particularly after the August release of his book Conscience of a Conservative. After the release, Washington Post opinion columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson referred to the book-length critique of Trump, the Republican Party, and politics in general as “the single biggest act of political bravery in the Trump era.”
At the time, I wrote a letter to Gerson expressing my displeasure with his assessment. In that letter I said (among many other things):
"If we let Republicans, by simply 'speaking out,' represent the 'single greatest act of political bravery' in the Trump era, then we're in serious trouble. They are the most powerful group in America and the most able to make positive change – even setting aside my feelings about their policy agenda. They should be held to that standard. Not a rhetorical standard that heaps praise upon them for words that they refuse to back up with action.
When I finished listening to Flake’s speech on the Senate floor I considered writing more of the same. But there isn't much point to that. On one hand, perhaps merely speaking the way that he did was enough to tank his primary chances – making it a sort of political courage after all. On the other, he won’t be running for re-election and if this spurs him to fourteen months of action he would not have engaged in otherwise, then it’s probably a win. Moreover, there was something in his speech that stuck with me and made me a little bit sad. Especially coming from a supposedly principled conservative:
"The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity.
I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent.
I decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles."
There’s a lot to admire in that passage – and in the entire speech – but the implication of that last paragraph is sad. Why can’t someone live by their conscience without removing political incentives from the equation entirely? Is that not a balance worth struggling to strike? What of the vast majority of Senators and other elected representatives who still have to weigh political considerations? Should we not expect their consciences to carry any weight either?
Again – to be clear – Flake’s speech was excellent. If the next year and change brings more speeches, active voting, and rigorous oversight, then it will be more excellent day by day. But I would like to see the Jeff Flakes left in Congress take, not just a rhetorical stand, but a political stand as well.
I would like to see the Jeff Flakes of the elected world defend their values in fiery speeches, refuse to resign, engage in aggressive oversight, give more speeches, vote their consciences, run for re-election, and fight like hell for votes while defending their positions for their merit. That would be political courage. I was going to write more along those lines but they would probably just be rehashing my thoughts from three months ago. Instead I’ll conclude with a conversation I had with a friend.
We were discussing Flake’s speech and how we wanted more from him and from other representatives. We concluded that in the meantime we would take what we could get.
"They are politicians, after all;” my friend said.
I replied: “And what can you expect from a politician? Certainly no more than you ask.”