Flake stands down—and stands up to Trump
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona unexpectedly announced this week that he would not seek re-election in the 2018 midterms, during a blistering floor speech in which he condemned President Trump’s “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” behavior. Flake, a longtime Trump critic, accused the president of undermining democratic norms with his “flagrant disregard for truth and decency.” The single-term senator blasted his own party’s “complicity” and warned that history would judge those who do not speak up. “If I have been critical, it’s not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States,” said Flake. “It is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience.”
Flake’s poll numbers have plummeted this year as he has stepped up his attacks on Trump; in two recent polls he trailed his likely 2018 primary challenger, conservative former State Sen. Kelli Ward, by 20 points. His retirement announcement comes just weeks after that of another Trump critic, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, and complicates the GOP’s efforts to retain its 52-48 seat Senate majority in the midterms. Corker continued his feud with the president this week, accusing him of “debasing” the country ahead of a Republican unity lunch. Trump dismissed Flake’s and Corker’s criticisms, saying they were only retiring because they have “zero chance of being elected.” He characterized his relationship with other GOP lawmakers as a “lovefest.”
What the columnists said
“Flake chickened out,” said E.J. Montini in the Phoenix Arizona Republic. Sure, he faced an “undoubtedly nasty primary fight against ‘Chemtrail’ Kelli Ward,” a Steve Bannon–backed conspiracy theorist hoping to ride a wave of anger to the Senate. But if Flake truly believes that Trumpism is a threat to the GOP and our democracy, it’s up to principled conservatives like him to “stay and fight.” Instead, he “waved the white flag.” Trump will be delighted, said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Our combative, loyalty-loving president “fixed Flake in his sights and basically chased him from the Senate”— adding the Arizona senator’s scalp to his growing collection.
Trump’s Republican critics are slowly multiplying, said Mike Allen in Axios.com. Four prominent party members—Flake, Corker, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and former President George W. Bush— sounded the alarm on his unorthodox presidency this week. But one of those men is retired, another terminally ill. The remaining two became “toast” among the base as soon as they criticized the president, who remains popular with Republican voters. In practical terms, Trump’s grip on the GOP remains “as strong as ever.”
For now, said James Hohmann in WashingtonPost.com. But Flake and Corker will remain in office until January 2019. That means they can spend the next 14 months—“an eternity in politics”— speaking out against the president whenever they see fit and using their considerable megaphones to challenge his bigotry, divisiveness, and dismal leadership. “That should terrify Trump.”