Jeff Flake talks great, but surrenders the fight

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Jeff Flake’s profile in courage comes with a big caveat.

Yes, it was refreshing yesterday to see a conservative Republican lawmaker stand on the Senate floor and call out his party colleagues for their moral cowardice, for failing to stand up to the repugnant poser who daily sullies and endangers this nation. And yes, it was bracing to hear a Republican lawmaker challenge his spineless colleagues: “Despotism loves a vacuum …What do we as United States senators have to say about it?”

But even though the junior Arizona senator rightly denounced “our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs,” and rightly declared that “it is time for our complicity and our accommodation to end,” his solution didn’t match the historic moment. He repeatedly rebuked his fellow Republicans for failing to fight, whereupon he announced that he won’t run for re-election in 2018. Basically he’s quitting the Senate — thereby giving up the fight.

We know what Flake has to say about it, because he had much to say, eloquently so.  For instance: “The stability of the entire world is routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters. The notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.” Fine. But what is he truly prepared to do about it?

I fail to see what Flake accomplishes by leaving. (The same holds true for fellow Trump critic Bob Corker, another lame duck.) Quitting sends the message that there’s no room anymore in the GOP for anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep to Trump’s treacherous tinpot tune. Quitting means that their seats could be filled by people who are happy to accommodate creeping authoritarianism, people who have no clue that Congress is designed to be a co-equal branch of government.

If Flake were to stay and fight — the only solution that syncs with his noble rhetoric — he could at least have pitched his quest for sane governance to Republican voters. If he lost the ’18 Arizona GOP primary, then so be it; he’d still be serving out his term until January ’19. Just as he plans to do anyway.

On the one hand yesterday, he brilliantly nailed his colleagues’ cowardice:

“When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseum — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.”

On the other hand, he’s bailing on his seat precisely because back home he faced a primary challenger who’s been stoking the Trumpkin base. If fighting for our principles is truly “more important than politics,” then why not do so — and to hell with the politics?

Too late, he’s made his decision. So what matters now is how he uses his remaining 15 months in office. Since he has freed himself from the voters, he’ll certainly have ample opportunity to shame his Republican brethren the way he did yesterday. This piercing passage, for instance:

“Too often, we rush not to salvage principle but to forgive and excuse our failures so that we might accommodate them and go right on failing — until the accommodation itself becomes our principle. In that way and over time, we can justify almost any behavior and sacrifice almost any principle. I’m afraid that is where we now find ourselves.”

But most Republicans will shrug off the message, just as they did yesterday; Mitch McConnell, Trump’s neutered poodle, sat stonefaced while Flake spoke, later rising to say that Flake is a fine man who will be missed, the usual Cave-of-Winds claptrap. Fine words won’t work. What’s required, going forward, is action.

Since Flake and Corker are free men (fulfilling Kris Kristofferson’s lyrics that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”), and since John McCain has nothing left to lose (for reasons we know), they should form a resistance triumvirate, blocking Trump at every turn — on red-ink tax reform, on firing Bob Mueller, everything. They can effectively reduce the Republican Senate to a 49-member minority.

And if they really want to act in the national interest, they can go caucus with the Democrats — shifting power in the Senate and mustering the votes to kick McConnell out of the leadership post. Sounds crazy, I know, but back in 2001 a Republican senator named Jim Jeffords changed parties and tipped the chamber to the Democrats for reasons far less weighty than today’s national emergency.

Flake, yesterday: “It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ — what are we going to say?”

So don’t just talk, senator. Do something to make the children proud.

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