Editorial: Senator Flake denounces, but forfeits to the new normal

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who will not run for re-election, answers questions from reporters on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. (Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake from Arizona delivered a 17-minute speech on the Senate floor Tuesday denouncing “the new normal” and declaring he won’t seek reelection in 2018 — but his powerful political call to action was a resounding forfeit.

In a Washington Post op-ed the same day, Flake defended the classical conservatism he prescribes to by evoking political figure Joseph Welch. Welch was chief legal counsel for the Army when it took Sen. Joseph McCarthy to court in 1954, and during a televised hearing, Welch famously stood up to McCarthy for his nationalist agenda.

“You have done enough,” Welch told McCarthy, looking the senator straight in the eye. “Have you no decency?”

And by Flake’s account, at least, it worked. He writes Welch “reawakened the conscience of the country,” and seemingly tried to echo that in his speech.

“Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent,” he said. “I rise today to say, ‘enough.’” The op-ed was even titled “Enough.”

But then he declared he wouldn’t be seeking reelection in 2018, before taking the time to see if saying “enough” would win him any more support.

In some ways, his decision is logical. Seeking reelection in Arizona would be incredibly difficult without the full support of the Republican party, and to gain the support of the party would, in his mind, require him to be complicit in the face of evil. Many Democrats may see this as a victory, along the lines of a boycott or strike.

He even tried to make it clear he plans to spend his remaining 14 months in office being “unafraid to stand up and speak out” against the rise of nationalism and brash, unreasonable policy — yet even then it seems like all talk. As recently as yesterday he voted for a Trump-backed effort to block citizens’ ability to sue banks, granting a victory to the Republican party he rallied against a few hours earlier.

But rather than inspiring action, his speech tacitly acknowledges that change has occurred in the Republican party since the rise of Trump. Flake likes to think of himself as a reasonable Republican, but the very definition of Republican has changed — and if he thinks he can no longer cooperate with the party, then it must have changed beyond recognition.

He may think he made a resounding blow against the administration, but all he did was acknowledge the gravity of our situation — the political world he and Welch fought for may simply no longer exist.

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