Jeff Flake: We won't be a majority party again until we return to traditional conservatism

I wish this were true but it palpably isn’t. Flake himself can’t possibly believe it.

I think, similarly today, the party’s lost its way. We have given into nativism and protectionism. And I think that, if we’re going to be a governing party in the future, and a majority party, we have got to go back to traditional conservatism, limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility, respect for free trade. Those are the principles that made us who we are.

How can you look at the 2016 primaries and conclude that Republicans, much less the country at large, are hungry for dogmatic conservatism? The House tried to pass a conservative-ish ObamaCare replacement this spring featuring a gigantic rollback of O-Care’s Medicaid expansion and the bill ended up polling roughly as well as cancer. Some surveys show the GOP base is now more open to protectionism than the Democratic base is, which may have been a key reason for Trump’s enormous upset in the Rust Belt last November. McCain ran as more conservative than he really was in 2008 and got blitzed; Romney ran as more conservative than he really was in 2012 and got blitzed; Trump ran as a guy who patently didn’t care much about conservatism and won more electoral votes than any Republican in nearly 30 years. As much as I was a Cruz guy last spring and think Cruz might have defeated Clinton, given her toxic popularity and ethical baggage, there’s a defensible case to be made that in the end only Trump among the GOP contenders was capable of beating her because, for once, a Republican made noises about the economy that resonated with the working class. I bet Steve Bannon could make a more convincing argument that the opposite of what Flake says here is true, that the party won’t be a majority until it lets go of traditional conservatism, than Flake could in defense of his own proposition. And yes, it hurts to say that.

Dickerson notes a line from Flake’s book: “It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.” That’s an interesting connection, and I wonder if Flake sees a causal element to it. The more of an ideological vacuum there is within the GOP, the more logical it seems that people will try to fill it with something — if not alternate ideologies like nationalism than with greater intensity of opposition to political and military enemies. If your numbers are shrinking and you’re losing battle after battle — Iraq, ObamaCare, gay marriage — it means you have to fight that much harder and dirtier to keep the enemy at bay. That may explain Trump’s appeal to the right more than protectionism or nationalism does. Many of us like him because he’s vicious, because the ideological battle between big government and small government is essentially lost and the only thing left to do is punch the left hard and do whatever one can to claw back political territory. Granted, Trump spends most of his time punching Jeff Sessions and Reince Priebus, but he’ll get around to battling the left eventually. Maybe?

Gotta give Flake credit for having some guts, though. He’s one of only two Republicans facing a tough Senate race next year, yet here he is publishing op-eds aimed squarely at Trump. Sample quote: “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?” The guy’s risking a primary. Maybe he thinks some things are more important than being reelected.