Jeff Flake: Maybe my party doesn't deserve to lead

I … can’t help but feel that a “don’t vote for Republicans” message might hurt his bid to become the 2020 Republican nominee.

In an age defined by negative partisanship, is there any greater heresy than this?

We will get through this, and when we do, there will be much work to do to repair the damage. There will have to be an accounting for how we got here so that we might never find ourselves here again. There will have to be an American restoration. And for the sake of the common good and for basic human decency – we will have to create a new politics. This will be the obligation of all of us – those of us in elective office, those of us who will soon not be, and those us too smart to ever engage in politics in the first place…

[N]ever has a party abandoned – fled! – its principles and deeply-held beliefs as quickly as my party fled its principles in the face of a nativist juggernaut…

If my party is going to try to pass off the degradation of the United States and her values from the White House as normal … if we are going to cloister ourselves in the alternative truth of an erratic leader … if we are going to refuse to live in the world that everyone else lives in … and reckon with the daily reality that they face – including their very real and understandable anxiety they feel … then my party might not deserve to lead.

He said this morning at an event in, ahem, New Hampshire that the odds of him running for president are “long” — but he’s not ruling it out, and he said yesterday in the speech excerpted above that “I firmly believe that if one voice can do such profound damage to our values and to our civic life, then one voice can also repair that damage. One voice can call us to a higher idea of America. One voice can act as a beacon to help us find ourselves once again, after this terrible fever breaks.” That’s as close as we’re likely to get to an explanation for why Flake is eyeing a hopeless primary challenge (or even more hopeless independent bid). He knows he’ll be crushed but he wants to get started on the project of building the post-Trump GOP as soon as possible.

What he never explains is why he thinks that’ll look dramatically different from Trumpism. That’s a hallmark of all of his Trump criticism — this will pass. The “fever” will break. A better Republican Party will replace what we have now. Never once to my knowledge has he detailed why he thinks this; he merely asserts it, just as one might blandly mutter when everything’s gone to hell that it’s always darkest before dawn. It’s true that Trump will pass from the political scene but Flake seems to imagine that, once he does, some higher-minded libertarian-conservatism will fill the vacuum. Why? Both political parties in the U.S. are trending leftward and populist, Democrats towards Bernie-style socialism and the right towards Trump-style nationalism. Endless polls have tracked the left-wing skew among younger Americans in particular, portending a broader shift in the electorate in the years ahead. Blue-collar economic displacement will get worse as technology advances. Racial tensions might get worse as minorities become a larger share of the population. None of that points towards the sort of “better angels of our nature” America that Flake envisions. If conservatism reemerges on the right, it won’t be because the GOP has suddenly rediscovered smaller government, it’ll be because some new charismatic figure with his own cult of personality chose to embrace conservatism as his vehicle for whatever reason and brought voters along with him.

Flake does understand, though, that nothing will change so long as politics is defined by negative partisanship: “To swing this pendulum away from the toxicity of our current moment, we must recognize the good in our opponents.” Why he thinks it *will* change apart from repeated exhortations that it *must* change remains, again, a mystery. There’s every reason to think political activists on both sides will go on cloistering themselves away from opponents. The Internet, which was supposed to make that hard, makes it very easy. And like everything else, politics will happen increasingly on the Internet over time. To the extent that the activist GOP currently stands for anything larger than “Democrats are destroying America,” it may not after much longer. Julian Sanchez, an anti-Trumper, joked a few days ago on Twitter that sometimes he imagines Trump as a time-traveler, sent from the future to steer Americans away from his brand of politics by showing them how inept and obnoxious it can be so that they aren’t seduced by a more competent, more sinister populist in the future. His vision of the future is closer to reality than Flake’s, I’d bet.