When Jeff Flake and Bob Corker turned their retirement announcements into fiery takedowns of the president, Democrats, Never Trumpers and pundits couldn't get enough.
Alas, admiration is fickle thing. Just days later, many of those same cheerleaders have found cause to complain: that Corker is calculating, that Flake is giving up, that both should have taken action sooner.
The opprobrium should fall more heavily on Corker than on Flake. Donald Trump has been president for nine months, and he was flaunting his lack of character on the campaign trail for a year prior. The fact that Corker accompanied him for so long is troubling, to say the least.
Flake, in contrast, made his disapproval known early on. He publicized his anti-Trump stance enough to tank his own potential for reelection before withdrawing from the scene.
Even with that distinction drawn, some of the self-righteous disparagement could be put on hold. In fact, we should actually be celebrating something quite rare: a willingness to publicly rethink a position when it would be easier to just go along.
Doing so takes boldness, as a new book by Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs makes clear. In "How to Think," Jacobs lays out the manifold reasons why it's difficult — and these days quite unusual — for one to openly change one's mind. The reasons for hesitation are genuine, even when the facts on the ground have undeniably changed. Or perhaps, in Corker's case, when one's understanding of the facts has finally caught up to what's really going on.
An all-too-common reason for hesitation is the fallacy of sunk cost. In this case, both senators have given decades to the Republican Party — Corker first ran for Senate in 1994, and Flake started working for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, in 1992. Corker in particular has spent the past several months either defending or tacitly supporting Trump, simply by following the look-the-other-way script of his party's leadership.
Allegiance is the price he paid for career advancement, or at least sustenance. But changing his mind and retiring now is like leaving money on the table. To those with noses upturned: It's not as easy as it looks.
Another common reason for clinging to a bad stance is the threat of lost membership, the idea of alienation from a valued community. True, Flake now has a dependable excuse to skip what seems like an excruciating weekly policy lunch with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — congratulations, sir, on living your best life! But Flake's slow-motion exile from the center to the outskirts has been sad to see. "There may not be a place for a Republican like me," he wistfully told the Arizona Republic when announcing his plan not to run for reelection. Giving up the sense of identity, belonging and support that comes with being a senator and majority-party member of Washington's elected elite must come at some psychic cost.
Yes, it may have taken standing down from reelection to liberate these two senators to speak their minds. But even if freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, it's still something worth celebrating. All but the most jaded critics should find something of value in Flake and Corker's willingness to recognize and stand up for a greater good than the phantom prize of tax reform: that of a democracy with standards and an America with a conscience.
That said, these congratulations still remain conditional. Further lauding remains dependent on what the two senators choose to do next. Will Corker and Flake use the remaining months of their tenures for good? In a Senate chamber where the Republican majority remains knife-thin, well-considered conscience votes could prevent all manner of bad legislation.
But in the short term, demanding that the senators grovel and apologize for their past party alignment risks turning us into the closeminded, vengeful actors who brought our country to a stalling point in the first place. It is also a convenient way of forgetting our own mistaken beliefs. For months, Flake tried to speak to his party from within while Democrats derided him as hollow. And Corker wasn't the only one who thought Trump might pivot, after all.
It's time to extend at least a bit of credit: Flake and Corker are leading by example. In this polarized and mulishly unthinking period in our nation's history, we should all be a little more open to changing our minds.
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