What’s Left: On Jeff Flake: Is Retirement the Right Move to Make?

The Shadow of Incumbency

The Republican party’s identity crisis faced another episode of uncertainty in the wake of Arizon Senator Jeff Flake’s decision not to run for re-election. With Donald Trump as president, Republicans have what is classically considered a united government, but concerns about Trump’s ability to hold office still leak out from sources close to Republicans in power all over Capitol Hill. 

Republicans are now paying the cost for their Pyrrhic win of the executive office and their complacency during the 2016 election campaign season. As popularity for Trump grew, criticism from Republicans came few and far between. All punches thrown were minimal, as those holding elected office realized their voters’ sense of alienation in this country would only deepen if GOP representatives were to openly oppose Trump. They feared their chances of reelection would be jeopardized, and their bases would turn on them.

Since the release of his book, The Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, Flake has made headlines as the example for how to navigate resisting as a Republican in the face of the current administration. Upon the book’s publication, Flake seemed fearless in his concerns about the President, condemning him for his nativist policies (such as the Muslim travel ban) and his temperamental and reckless behavior. Coming up on an election year where 50 percent of his state’s population voted for Trump, this was a politically risky move. Flake seemed unfazed appearing on the news, on podcasts and in print defending his choice to write this book, saying it was pertinent for him to speak up. It all weighed too heavily on his conscience. 

Unfortunately, Flake’s voting record didn’t match his rhetoric. Since Trump assumed office, Flake has voted in line with Trump’s agenda 90 percent of the time. Riding the momentum of the success and discourse on his book, Flake had the opportunity to become a force of resistance within the U.S. Senate. Some might make the argument that the legislation pushed for by the administration follows classically conservative ideas, so Flake is simply voting his true conscience. But according to Nate Silver’s statistical analysis program “FiveThirtyEight,” Flake was expected to support this administration only 60.8 percent of the time based on the margin Trump won by in Arizona in the 2016 election. 

Flake’s legislative actions showed his weakness in the face of the party’s effort to seem united as well as a solace to Trump voters in Arizona who are angry with Flake going rogue and speaking out against the president. These supportive efforts only benefitted the party’s image, while Flake’s approval ratings continued to plummet. Going into his announcement last Tuesday, Flake’s Bannon-backed primary challenger was up 20 points in the polls and he had an 18 percent approval rating. Flake’s hopes to be reelected looked weak. So, he took to the Senate floor and made some of his most damning statements.

Flake’s case was similar to the criticisms of Trump voiced recently by two other Republican members of Congress, Senators John McCain and Bob Corker, who are also not running for re-election. Freed from the influence of re-election politics, government officials are free to speak their minds, and more importantly, do what is best for the country rather than for their re-election chances. Flake began his retirement speech with this same point, stating “sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office and there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.” What does it say about our democratic institutions if the only ones who feel safe speaking out are the ones who are leaving and no longer will be actors within the system? 

If  it’s incumbency that is holding back the Republicans from speaking out against the discrimination, backwards thinking, fear mongering, hate and reckless behavior of our president, then there may be some things to reconsider about term limits. When someone is elected to Congress, their job is to represent their constituents and use their judgment to do what is best for this country. Money in politics has already corrupted the election process but the fear of dissenting coming from the Republican party (against actions that clearly go against American values) is even more damaging. 

In Flake’s speech before Congress, he quoted Federalist 51 which outlines checks and balances, “Ambition counteracts ambition.” Trump’s ambition is a selfish one: he only cares about his image and has little patriotic ambition for his time in office. It is also sad to see Republicans value their careers and ambition more than speaking out against obvious wrongs. If term limits need to be put in place in order to incentivize people into doing their civic duty and jobs, I could be for it.

Contact Glynnis Harvey at [email protected].