As of 9:30 Friday morning, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) was Public Enemy No. 1 for Democrats — another Republican who talked a good game about President Trump and restoring political sanity but, like others before him, wouldn’t vote his rhetoric. Four hours later, he was their savior — however briefly.
Not even Flake seemed to understand how it happened.
Flake on Friday became the latest star of a long-running serial involving GOP senators trying to figure out just how far they are willing to go to buck Trump and their party. After announcing Friday morning that he would support Brett M. Kavanaugh despite major “doubts” — an announcement that appeared to all but assure Kavanaugh’s confirmation — Flake spearheaded a compromise.
The deal gave Kavanaugh his decisive 11th vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee and sent the nomination to the Senate floor, but it also called for a week’s delay in the full Senate to allow the FBI to review sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. Democrats had been calling for the investigation from the moment Christine Blasey Ford made her allegation; Republicans resisted, insisting it was unnecessary and wouldn’t be definitive anyway.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said they support Flake’s call after he announced it. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reportedly talked to him via phone as he was negotiating his maneuver with colleagues in the Judiciary Committee chamber’s anteroom. If all four withhold their votes, they could prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation until they get what they want. Flake, for now, appears to have had a real impact by allowing time for an investigation of Kavanaugh.
Flake’s position in all of this is unique. He’s arguably Trump’s most outspoken Republican critic in the U.S. Senate and has afforded himself leeway to speak his mind by not seeking reelection this year. Much of his rhetoric deals with saving democracy and restoring order to our institutions.
But he’s also a strong fiscal conservative who has even made overtures about running for president in 2020 and wouldn’t seem to want to make too many enemies. He also hadn’t broken from Trump on a high-profile decision, as his Arizona colleague, Sen. John McCain (R), did in killing the Obamacare replacement bill at the last moment.
After announcing he was a “yes” for Kavanaugh early Friday, Flake was confronted in a Senate elevator by protesters who said they had been sexually assaulted. It was a powerful scene, and the whole thing aired on cable news, with Flake standing rigid, listening to the women, not seeming to know what else to do.
Early Friday afternoon, as the Judiciary Committee was having what seemed to be perfunctory talks about the situation, Flake disappeared into what’s known as the “ante room” with two Democrats, Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Reporters instantly wondered what was afoot, and the buzz reached a fever pitch when the scheduled 1:30 p.m. committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination didn’t happen on time.
Flake’s decision was both hugely consequential and clearly made by the seat of his pants. It wasn’t as if forcing a delay hadn’t crossed his mind before. He even previewed Wednesday on the Senate floor that a delay of the committee vote might be necessary, depending on what was said at Thursday’s hearing featuring Kavanaugh and Ford.
But then he released a statement Friday morning saying he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh even as he “left the hearing yesterday with as much doubt as certainty.” I even remarked Friday morning how inconsistent it seemed that Flake wouldn’t at least try to get more answers with the very real leverage he had on the Judiciary Committee.
Eventually, perhaps with the assistance of protesters, Democrats and his colleagues who are on the fence, that occurred to Flake, too. But his wavering was exceedingly familiar to Democrats anxious for a Republican to truly take a stand.
Even McCain regularly frustrated them, despite denouncing Trump’s worldview and casting the decisive Obamacare vote. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was a huge Trump critic during the 2016 campaign and now ranks among his most vocal defenders — an attack dog for Trump and for Kavanaugh’s nomination. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also criticized Trump’s behavior and trade policies, but his vote is rarely in doubt. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is retiring, like Flake, and has decried the disorder in the White House, but he has also been a Trump confidant at times. Murkowski and Collins are pro-abortion rights moderates who were the swing votes on Kavanaugh from the start, but neither has sought the spotlight.
If there was one person who could or would be tempted to take this stand, it was Flake. He had both the leverage and the potential motivation. Everything about the situation invited his interjection.
But even he didn’t seem to want to do it — until he abruptly changed his mind. That’s a pretty strong commentary on just how difficult a choice this is. And it’s a remarkable commentary on our polarization and tribalism.