Jeff Flake Isn't A Hero, He's Playing It Safe

The Trump era has not been kind to the left.

Political victories are hard to come by; in fact, most of them can hardly be considered “wins” at all. With two-thirds of the federal government under Republican control, the passage of legislation that actually benefits the common citizen is a pipe dream.

As a result, Democrats have adjusted their goals somewhat: in lieu of passing any legislation, they’ll settle for successfully blocking the more reprehensible policy proposals of the GOP. This lower standard for what can be considered a noteworthy achievement for the left isn’t just limited to policy, either.

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announced yesterday on the Senate floor that he will not be seeking re-election in 2018. In his speech, Senator Flake all but directly cited the Trump administration as the catalyst for his impending retirement: “Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy.”

Much like his previous public castigation of the Trump administration and the GOP’s complicity in creating it, Flake’s speech on the Senate floor was lauded by both liberal and conservative media outlets. Pundits practically lined up to praise Flake for his bravery, and centrist Democrats and neoliberals could scarcely reach their fainting couches quickly enough, so overwhelmed were they by the presence of a true Principled Conservative. Case in point: the search term “Jeff Flake Resist” on Twitter yields a truly alarming number of people who think Flake’s public defection from the rest of the GOP was nothing short of heroism.

As the saying goes, however, actions speak louder than words. And based on his actions, Jeff Flake is no hero. 

For all his (accurate) public handwringing about the deleterious effects of the Trump era, Senator Flake has still managed to swallow his principles 90% of the time in order to vote in alignment with what Trump wants. Flake’s moral compass has led him to retire from the Senate, sure, but it has also led him to vote “Yea” on every GOP attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act; to vote to repeal a rule that would require energy companies to reduce waste and emissions; and to vote to repeal a rule barring internet service providers from selling customer data.

The last time Flake made such a public display of contempt for the Trump administration was in an op-ed for POLITICO. The timing then was convenient — Flake just so happened to be peddling his latest book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. And, true to form, Flake stands to benefit from yesterday’s so-called “brave” stand against Trumpism.

To call Senator Flake’s throwing in the towel a “retirement” is akin to saying that someone in a coma is “resting comfortably” — neither has much of a choice. According to an August poll, Flake’s approval rating in his home state of Arizona was at 18 percent; in other words, he’s twice as unpopular as President Trump, and about four times as unpopular as Bernie Sanders. As the junior Senator from a state that Trump won in last year’s election, Flake faced long odds to keep his seat past the 2018 midterms.

By publicly breaking with Trump, Flake was able to control his exit. In the short term, he can spare himself the indignity of losing his seat as an incumbent to an upstart challenger. In the longer term, he can distance himself from governance for the remainder of Trump’s term, which means fewer damning votes (like the ones listed above) to explain away. These factors, coupled with our apparently infinitesimally short collective memory, will allow Flake to pop back up for a 2020 presidential bid on a platform of “Not Trump” that will split the moderate vote of both parties.

I understand the impulse to celebrate anything that can be considered a blow to the nationalist and populist rhetoric that undergirds the ideology of Trump’s devotees — table scraps mean more to a starving man than a well-fed one. But the rush (especially among centrist Democrats and neoliberals) to canonize Jeff Flake for a speech that will be forgotten in a month is ludicrous.

If Flake were actually interested in stemming the tide of Trumpism, he wouldn’t have voted in near-lockstep with Trump’s policy proposals. If Flake were truly principled, he wouldn’t relinquish the power he has to influence legislation. And if Flake were the hero everybody wants him to be, he wouldn’t have followed his righteous sermon by immediately turning around and voting to repeal a rule that would allow consumers to band together to sue financial institutions.

While I firmly believe that we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, I don’t believe we need to set the bar for “good” so low that any dubious character with a microphone and an adversary in common should be hailed as the second coming of Christ. Flake’s speech was impactful, and if it encourages other legislators in Congress to follow his lead, then so much the better. The Democratic Party is in dire need of a savior; that much is clear. But I’d suggest holding out for someone who actually deserves the title.

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