The White House has met with at least three actual or prospective primary challengers to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake in recent weeks, a reflection of Donald Trump’s strained relations with the senator and the latest sign of the president’s willingness to play hardball with lawmakers who cross him — even Republican incumbents.
Flake, a longtime Trump critic who refused to endorse the president during the 2016 campaign, is one of a handful of undecided Republican votes on the Obamacare repeal effort. He’s also one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2018.
As a preliminary observation, let’s acknowledge that Democrats surely must be popping champagne corks over the prospect that the second-most-vulnerable GOP senator may be savaged by one or more campaign challengers, who will either produce a wacky general-election clone of President Trump (who is historically unpopular) or do great damage to an incumbent.
Beyond that, this is an extraordinary opportunity for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to stand tall in a party of moral and intellectual Lilliputians who’ve sold their political souls to the devil by capitulating to Trump. We have substantial differences with Flake on several issues, most especially foreign policy, but he has earned our admiration by refusing to support Trump and by rejecting the howling mob’s call for protectionism and immigration restrictionism. Just as we seek common cause with Democrats with whom we have serious policy differences in order to defend democratic norms and the scourge of Trumpism, so, too, do we cheer on Flake if he remains resolute in opposing Trumpism. In that vein, we address the following letter to him:
Congratulations! You’ve drawn the scorn and opposition of the most corrupt, unqualified and unfit president in our history. Your principled refusal to support him as a presidential candidate, to carry his water or to defend indefensible positions has made you a political target. As uncomfortable as that may be, wear that as a badge of honor.
When President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, you tweeted, “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.” That position has held up well. When you were asked recently if you’d have taken a meeting with a Russian offering opposition research, you replied, “From the Russian government? I’d go the other way.” When it came to Russian sanctions, you voted for the measure to tighten congressional oversight and prevent Trump from rushing to the rescue of his Russian comrades. (We note that while you historically have been an opponent of unilateral sanctions you plainly understood the circumstances here demanded strong action against Russian meddling in our election.)
You’ve been the rare Republican to reject mindless protectionism. “I do still think there are enough people that realize we’ve got to do it,” you said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “Some of those things you just suck up and do it because you know it has to be done. And this is one of them.” Alas, the rest of Congress capitulated to the protectionist fury. On NAFTA, you’ve been stalwart as well, even organizing a campaign to keep the deal in place:
Likewise, you’ve blasted the idiotic plan to build a wall on the southern border.
On health care, you’ve so far rejected the stampede to pass an incoherent bill that would slash health care for the most vulnerable without achieving real improvements in the health-care markets. (You stated that your vote would hinge on two principles: “The first is that the legislation needs to ensure that those who currently have coverage do not have the rug pulled out from under them. The second is that the Senate must agree on a solution that is fiscally sustainable.”) We hope you’ll conclude that the bill does neither, but surely you’ve figured out that rallying around a bad bill for the sake of partisan loyalty is unacceptable.
So we can see why the White House has put a target on your back. Never mind. Should you relent now, seeking to curry favor with unprincipled, irresponsible ideologues, you’ll lose your reputation for independence and hurt your constituents. Stand firm in your principles, and you’ll be remembered as one of the few Republicans who didn’t roll over and play dead when political courage was required.
What about 2018? Heck, if the White House wants to run anti-trade, anti-immigrant, pro-Russian Trumpkin stooges against you, there’s nothing to stop such tomfoolery. (If a bunch of them run, carving up the ever-decreasing pro-Trump vote, all the better.) Embrace the challenge and run a principled campaign to defend what the GOP used to stand for. Should you lose, as regrettable as that might be, you’ll be celebrated as a heroic figure, someone capable of leading a new center-right movement. Perhaps you’d run against a Trumpkin Republican in the Senate general election — or perhaps you’d seek another office or help lead a movement to end the Trump plague.
In any event, congratulations on your distinction as a principled Republican despised by the worst president in American history.