Repub­li­can takes on GOP ‘de­nial’

Ari­zona se­na­tor with low ap­proval rat­ings chal­lenges si­lence on Trump in a new book.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Lisa Mas­caro lisa.mas­caro@la­ Twit­ter: @LisaMas­caro

WASH­ING­TON — Sen. Jeff Flake is among the most en­dan­gered Re­pub­li­cans run­ning for re­elec­tion next year. But he’s not ex­actly act­ing like it.

The se­na­tor from Ari­zona un­leashed a sear­ing crit­i­cism Tues­day of Pres­i­dent Trump and, more sig­nif­i­cantly, of the GOP’s un­will­ing­ness to con­front the chaos at the White House.

Re­pub­li­cans, he writes in his new book, are in “de­nial.”

“Too of­ten, we ob­serve the un­fold­ing drama along with the rest of the coun­try, pas­sively, all but say­ing, ‘Some­one should do some­thing!’ with­out seem­ing to re­al­ize that that some­one is us,” Flake writes in “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive.”

“And so, that un­nerv­ing si­lence in the face of an er­ratic ex­ec­u­tive branch is an ab­di­ca­tion, and those in po­si­tions of lead­er­ship bear par­tic­u­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Such frank crit­i­cism of one’s own party is an un­usual ap­proach in Wash­ing­ton, and some are herald­ing Flake as a voice of rea­son in a Congress where most Re­pub­li­cans have been hes­i­tant to con­front Trump, espe­cially in states the pres­i­dent won.

But it’s ac­tu­ally not sur­pris­ing com­ing from the first-term se­na­tor, who was never a Trump fan. Flake has al­ways been a bit of an out­lier in his more than 16 years in Congress.

Flake is chan­nel­ing his state’s rich tra­di­tion as West­ern out­siders, a mashup of Barry Gold­wa­ter’s con­ser­va­tive legacy and, more re­cently, the dra­matic re­turn of Sen. John McCain to cast the de­cid­ing Repub­li­can “no” vote last week that doomed the GOP’s Oba­macare over­haul. Flake voted for the plan.

Sec­ond only to Nevada’s Sen. Dean Heller as the most at-risk Repub­li­can in the 2018 midterm elec­tion, Flake cer­tainly risks alien­at­ing Trump vot­ers he will need next year to win re­elec­tion.

But Flake also ap­pears to be cal­cu­lat­ing that Ari­zona’s in­de­pen­dent streak and its shift to­ward be­com­ing a swing state will re­ward his McCain-like “straight talk” — or that at least he will be de­feated hav­ing had his say.

“Cer­tainly it’s not the eas­i­est path to re­elec­tion,” Flake told PBS’ Char­lie Rose, ac­knowl­edg­ing his low net ap­proval rat­ings in polls. “It makes some peo­ple up­set, but I felt it was im­por­tant enough to do.”

Flake said, “We politi­cians have to rec­og­nize that there are some things that are more im­por­tant than re­elec­tion.”

A strict fis­cal con­ser­va­tive first elected to the House in 2000, Flake was tea-party-minded long be­fore the rise of the tea party, rail­ing against gov­ern­ment spend­ing and waste as a lead­ing bud­get cut­ter in the House.

But he also comes from a Mor­mon tra­di­tion of mis­sion­ary ser­vice, hav­ing worked for years in Africa. He has adopted a more wel­com­ing at­ti­tude to im­mi­grants than many in his party, and was part of the so­called Gang of Eight sen­a­tors who drafted the 2013 im­mi­gra­tion over­haul.

Dur­ing the early days of Trump’s fiery cam­paign trail rhetoric, Flake de­liv­ered a speech dur­ing Fri­day prayers at an Ari­zona mosque. Fa­vor­ing more open re­la­tions with Cuba, he trav­eled to the is­land na­tion dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Flake was among just a few Re­pub­li­cans in Congress who didn’t vote for Trump, and has been more will­ing to speak out against White House poli­cies.

In his book, ex­cerpted first in Politico, he crit­i­cizes col­leagues who were quick to at­tack Pres­i­dent Obama in hopes of mak­ing him a one-term pres­i­dent — but who to­day have “main­tained an un­nerv­ing si­lence as in­sta­bil­ity has en­sued.”

“To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was hap­pen­ing was any­thing ap­proach­ing nor­malcy re­quired a de­ter­mined sus­pen­sion of crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties. And tremen­dous pow­ers of de­nial,” he writes.

Those sen­tences are a not-so-sub­tle swipe at party lead­ers in­clud­ing Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.), who or­ches­trated that strat­egy, which Flake in­di­rectly ar­gues left Re­pub­li­cans bereft of their own pol­icy ideas.

Mc­Connell dis­missed ques­tions Tues­day, say­ing he had not yet read the book.

“I’ll get around to it at some point,” he said.

Flake ac­knowl­edges he shares blame, ac­cept­ing some re­spon­si­bil­ity for his own will­ing­ness to duck the hard ques­tions over Trump.

“I’ve been sym­pa­thetic to this im­pulse to de­nial, as one doesn’t ever want to be­lieve that the gov­ern­ment of the United States has been made dys­func­tional at the high­est lev­els, espe­cially by the ac­tions of one’s own party,” he writes.

“But it was also a mon­u­men­tal dodge. It would be like Noah say­ing, ‘If I spent all my time ob­sess­ing about the com­ing flood, there would be lit­tle time for any­thing else.’ At a cer­tain point, if one is be­ing hon­est, the flood be­comes the thing that is most wor­thy of at­ten­tion. At a cer­tain point, it might be time to build an ark.”

What re­mains un­clear, though, is how many fel­low Re­pub­li­cans might fol­low his lead.

Re­pub­li­cans in re­cent weeks have shown some will­ing­ness to chart their own course or con­front the White House, in­clud­ing pass­ing a Rus­sia sanc­tions bill, though the pack­age also sanc­tioned Iran and North Korea.

Flake’s col­league McCain and two other Re­pub­li­cans re­sisted Trump’s in­sis­tence that they pass the health­care bill, and many have also warned Trump against fir­ing Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions.

For now, that leaves Flake among the few GOP law­mak­ers who openly have spo­ken so crit­i­cally about Trump and the sit­u­a­tion in the White House.

Pablo Mar­tinez Mon­si­vais As­so­ci­ated Press

SEN. JEFF FLAKE writes in “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive”: “To carry on in the spring of 2017 as if what was hap­pen­ing was any­thing ap­proach­ing nor­malcy re­quired a de­ter­mined sus­pen­sion of crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties.”

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