The Transom, Ben Domenech, October 25, 2017

I shared my initial reactions yesterday to Jeff Flake’s announcement of his intent to retire – that I believe his choice, unlike Bob Corker’s, says something fundamental about the direction of the Republican Party and authenticates it as the party of Trump.  Flake is by all accounts a good and decent man. He was a good Congressman, a rebellious backbencher. In his one term in the Senate he was more of a company man, a team player as Mitch McConnell said. And ultimately, that second version of Flake was caught in a bad place when the ground shifted under his feet.

Flake says he did not see a path to victory. He’s right, and a good indication of why came in this post announcement interview with Chuck Todd.  Flake compared the current moment and the NFL protests to arguments about flag burning and Terry Schiavo, describing culture war politics as a politics of grievance and resentment. Here’s the transcript:

FLAKE: “In the book I talk about being this majority in the house during the period 2001 to 2006. I thought at that time there are some parallels to today. The other day when these protests in the NFL were coming on, I thought back, and I wrote about it in the book, that I knew we were in trouble as a party when we were spending on earmarking so badly and prescription drug benefits and whatever else. We lost the mantle of fiscal discipline as a party. So what did we do? We started to argue about things like flag burning or Terry Schiavo. And the wedge issues, the cultural issues. And then you know, we’re doing that now. And that – that doesn’t…

TODD:  “Do you see that as a sign of weakness?”

FLAKE:  “Yes, I do.  I do.  I think that – I mean Republicans – we have always stood for limited government, economic freedom, free trade. And those issues, when we really can’t claim that mantle now then you kinds of have to rile up the base. And that’s what we are seeing with some of the actions that the president has taken. And you may be able to win an election here or there, but as I’ve said before, resentment is not a governing philosophy.”

Flake’s problem, of course, is that Republican voters view it that way. Protecting nuns from paying for abortion pills isn’t resentment. Protecting gun rights isn’t resentment. And believing that the flag of the United States represents the greatest force for freedom in human history and deserves to be treated with respect is not resentment. And suggesting it is, suggesting these aren’t issues politicians should be talking about, is declaring disarmament in the culture wars – the opposite of what Republican voters clearly want.

The real resentment voters have is for Republican politicians who pretend during elections to be on their side, to share their priorities, to be ready to defend their beliefs – but turn out after the election to only defend on the things they’re comfortable talking to the media about… in other words, the only time when it doesn’t matter.

Jeff Flake 1.0 would have far fewer problems in the Trump era. He was a populist who raged against government corruption and cronyism. He would absolutely still criticize Trump, as many House conservatives still do, on trade and on transparency – but he would also be able to be with Trump on key issues instead of wagging his finger impotently on the way out the door. Draining the swamp is something Flake 1.0 would be all about getting right, and he’d be sticking around to make sure it got done. Flake 2.0 spent more time writing a book that now reads like an exit interview with Brave Brave Sir Robin.

The real question going forward for the GOP is: what do they do with the voting coalition they have now? Resenting their choices won’t make it better, and make no mistake, this was a choice Arizona made based on every poll in evidence. If the GOP isn’t going to be the party of Jeff Flake any more, is it going to be the party of Roy Moore? Or is it going to find a different path?