Jeff Flake rides ‘the tranquilized elephant’

     Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and other members of the committee, arrive on Capitol Hill Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, for a closed-door meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and other members of the committee, arrive on Capitol Hill Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, for a closed-door meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

    Put your hands together for Jeff Flake. It’s great that a prominent Republican is calling out his morally bankrupt party for the Faustian pact it forged with a flimflammer.

    Alas, Flake’s rhetorical efforts are too little, too late — and with his courage comes caveats.

    In his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” the junior senator from Arizona deserves credit for candidly saying what has long needed to be said — especially since so few of his elected Republican colleagues (roughly zero) have summoned the strength to state the overdue obvious. Props to Flake, at least, for having the spine to say stuff like this:

    “Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign … We lurched like a tranquilized elephant … We were party to a very big lie … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

    And this:

    “Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.”

    And this:

    Far from conservative, the president’s [2016] comportment was rather a study in the importance of conflict in reality television — that once you introduce conflict, you cannot deescalate conflict. You must continually escalate. That was an important principle of his campaign, and it defined at least his early approach to governing, too … We must recognize that government and the process by which we go about electing our leaders ought never be confused for entertainment or graded for its entertainment value or its ratings. We degrade our politics enough as it is without turning our democracy over to carnival barkers and reality television.”

    And this, looking ahead:

    “If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals — even as we put at risk our institutions and our values — then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?”

    Flake predicts that Republicans will pay a price for their “sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery. The crash from this sugar high will be particularly unpleasant.” He’s calculating that his candor will cushion his own potential crash. He’s up for re-election in 2018, and if he’s confronted in the Arizona GOP primary with a Trump-flunky challenger, he’s clearly gambling that he can prevail by mobilizing the voters who by then will be fed up with Trump’s serial failures. You can’t fault the guy for mapping a survival strategy.

    On the other hand, Flake’s rebellious streak is a very recent development, laced with inconsistencies.

    Since Trump was sworn in, Flake as a senator has voted the Trump position roughly 95 percent of the time. Flake defended that stat on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, insisting that “all we’re really doing is approving the president’s Cabinet picks, justices.” But even though Flake lamented Trump’s exploitation of the fake birther issue (“that was particularly ugly”), last month he voted to confirm a federal judge who had frequently blogged in favor of the fake birther issue. And last month he voted for the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, which, with Trump’s signature, would’ve stripped health coverage from roughly 15 million Americans.

    Granted, we should credit Flake for being self-critical; at one point in his book, he says: “Any honest accounting … of how we made ourselves so susceptible to rank demagoguery and of how we were accessories before, during, and after the fact … must begin with me.” Fine. Let’s do that. Fact is, the Republican slide toward insanity didn’t begin with Trump. What did Flake do — what did any of his colleagues do — to arrest that slide before Trump showed up to exploit it?

    Ever since Flake has been in Washington — starting as a congressman in 2003 — he has mostly played the good soldier, even as Republicans have increasingly fallen under the sway of what ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum calls “the conservative entertainment complex.” Props to Flake for criticizing Trump, as indeed he did during the ’16 campaign. But for years Trump’s fetid turf was seeded by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Alex Jones, Mark Levin, and other toxic talkers. We got Sarah Palin in 2008, and the lies about Obamacare “death panels” in 2009. And the GOP’s tribal partisanship can be traced back to Newt Gingrich in the ’90s.

    Flake has occasionally ticked off Republican leaders (on spending issues). But, like his colleagues, he has mostly abetted the toxic right-wing discourse. And the culture of lying, which Flake attributes to Trump, actually bloomed during the George W. Bush administration, which marketed serial whoppers in order to justify the Iraq war that destabilized the Middle East. Lest we forget, that was a time when people who questioned the WMD “evidence” were denounced by Republicans as unpatriotic.

    On “Meet the Press” two days ago, Flake said with regret, “I wish that we could have been more truthful with the electorate” during the 2016 campaign. Fine. But the party’s allergy to truth, and its pact with demaoguery, didn’t start with Trump in 2016. If only Flake — and his still-silent colleagues — had spoken up long before it was too little, too late.

    With an assist from my summer researcher, Domenic Casciato.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal