Donald Trump

The Senate Was Touched by Greatness Today: In Praise of Jeff Flake

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, October 24, 2017, 6:42 PM

We are no longer used to great Senate speeches. The Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth has long since given up anything a thinking person would confuse with deliberation. The Senate speech, once form of storied oratory, has withered as the body itself has degraded. It's partly the fault of C-SPAN, which made possible the address to an empty chamber, the confusion of an actual audience with a television audience—the idea that a Senate speech was a vehicle for national dissemination of talking points, rather than a means of persuading one's colleagues of things one truly believed. We don't expect real ideas to come in Senate speeches, actual emotion to be associated with this form of political communication. Today a Senate speech is expected to be an actor's rendition of what a Senate speech once was—Senator So-and-So playing Mr. Smith playing a senator.

And then rises one Jeff Flake and delivers not merely a great speech but also a genuinely important one, perhaps the single most important address given on the Senate floor in my memory. This speech will be remembered not merely for its eloquence and its moral correctness but also for its intellectual content and its courage at a particular moment in time.

Here's the speech, which I urge people to watch in its 17-and-a-half-minute entirety:

Flake's speech covers a lot of ground, and headlines are already focusing on his bottom line: that he's not seeking reelection in 2018.

The speech is important, however, less because of its endpoint than because of how Flake gets there. He begins by declaring that "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. Now is such a time." Actually, it's not for him. Flake did not risk his career today. He did that long ago when he decided not to get in line behind President Donald Trump. He's now ending his career. And like Sen. Bob Corker, as the speech makes clear, Flake is doing so deliberately so as to be fully free to be himself between now and the end. "Now is such a time" is a hortatory command to his colleagues. I am sacrificing myself, he is saying, to challenge you to take risks.

Flake then launches into a blistering account of his regrets: at "the state of our disunion," at the "disrepair and destructiveness of our politics," at the indecency of our discourse," at the courseness of our leadership," and at the "compromise of our moral authority." To stay in office as a Republican he is saying, requires accomodating these things. And "it is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end."

In case anyone at the White House is inclined to pretend that Flake was not referring to Trump, as the White House did last week when former President George W. Bush made similar comments, Flake was explicit. He is talking about Trump. "If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States," he says baldly. "We must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top. We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks; the threats against principles, freedoms and institution; the flagrant disregard for truth and decency."

He goes on: "Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy."

Flake then pivots to Congress's institutional failure to enforce norms. "[W]e would better serve the country by better fulfilling our obligations under the Constitution by adhering to . . . Mr. Madison’s doctrine of separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary—and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51—held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract with each other, if necessary. 'Ambition counteracts ambition,' he wrote. But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency?" This is the heart of the matter. Trump is far more dangerous because people in Congress won't lift their fingers against him because of the fears that Flake is describing.

Flake has not always felt at liberty to respond in the manner that he admits here he knows he should. "I am holier than none," he said. But "when we remain silent and fail to act, when we know 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 nauseam, when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of our institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics."

He then pivots to substantive matters, particularly to the international order that Trump has done so much verbally to unsettle. After praising the American development of that rules-based order, he laments its erosion. "Now it seems that we, the architects of this visionary rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity, are the ones most eager to abandon it. The implications of this abandonment are profound and the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum and our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal."

It is only here that he comes to his decision not to seek reelection. "It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party, the party that has so long defined itself by its belief in those things," he said. To compete for reelection, in other words, means to be constantly looking over his shoulder at a base on which he cannot count. It means having to compromise with, to be complicit in and accomodate, what he believes to be unacceptable. It means being part of a Congress that refuses to enforce the basic norms of Madison's separation of powers. And it means watching with sails trimmed as the rules-based world order he believes in is attacked by the very country that established it. Only by freeing himself of the constraints of the party can he free himself, albeit for a limited time, to be himself. Consequently, "I’ve decided that I would be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself of the political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles."

In the wake of Flake's speech, some #NeverTrump conservatives are lamenting that he did not decide to stay and fight. I appreciate their point. But to me the salient fact is that neither Flake nor Corker felt able to be true to themselves without taking the step of not having to face Republican voters again. We can regret that fact, but as political analysts we must appreciate its reality. We must appreciate that sometimes one has to manufacture the conditions in which one is free to speak the truth. And I will not hide my admiration for those who take that step.

On Monday, I was stunned to read an essay by a dear friend of many years, an article so morally beneath the author I never would have imagined it possible my friend could have written such a thing. Out of respect for our friendship, I am neither linking to it nor arguing with it. But I watched Flake's speech with it very much on my mind. How I wish my friend, who is not a senator and does not have to face voters, had troubled himself to shed the relatively minor social and intellectual shackles that prevent him from looking clearly at our politics and seeing the threats to ordered liberty under law that we do and do not face. How I wish he had been willing to say, with Flake, that "we have fooled ourselves for long enough" and that we must free ourselves to describe our politics as they are.