Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake Won’t Seek Re-Election In 2018. “Here’s the bottom line: The path that I would have to travel to get the Republican nomination is a path I’m not willing to take, and that I can’t in good conscience take,” Flake told The Arizona Republic. “It would require me to believe in positions I don’t hold on such issues as trade and immigration and it would require me to condone behavior that I cannot condone… This spell will pass, but not by next year,” Flake said, in reference to Trump and his faction of populists within the GOP, including former White House senior advisor Steve Bannon, who has been backing Ward.”
Flake’s announcement that he will retire at the end of his term rather than run for re-election has been coming for a long time. If you’ve been following my Twitter feed, you’ve seen I’ve argued this needed to happen since July. Flake is by all accounts a nice and decent fellow, but he was confronted by a situation likely to confront many Republican politicians over the coming year: that he exists out of time, a vestige of the pre-Donald Trump fusionism of the Republican Party, and that continuing to function in the GOP as redefined by Trump proved very challenging for him. Again: the GOP as it was died in Cleveland. Flake’s decision authenticates this.
Flake is also one of the rare politicians whose brand changed dramatically. In the 2000s, he was a Jim DeMint ally who took a strong libertarian stand on several issues, and criticized the George W. Bush administration from that perspective. In the Senate, his brand shifted significantly – and not just because of the Gang of Eight. The list of fights he joined in the House was long – it’s hard to remember what major fight he chose to advance in the Senate. In response to his speech on the floor today, Mitch McConnell said “We’ve just witnessed a speech from a very fine man,” and called him a “team player”. Exactly – Flake left his populism behind, and became less a part of the internal critics of McConnell and his style of governing the body (despite the fact that if such methods had changed, Flake might not be in the predicament he is now).
In a sense Flake had the worst of both worlds – he was a McConnell team player who voted very much in line with Donald Trump and the GOP agenda, while also being one of the president’s most prominent public critics. Stepping down makes it much more likely that someone will jump into the primary against Kelli Ward who has the potential to win the seat (keep an eye on Rep. Martha McSally in particular), and is thus different than the calculation on Bob Corker’s part. This decision is Flake recognizing reality has shifted, but it is also about recognizing that he – just like Corker and others who will likely bail – is incapable of making anything happen. This is less a changing of the guard, because Flake is not the guard, he’s more of a bystander to the guard, and he knows it.
There is, at least a theory, a version of rightist populism that is coherent and sane, but no one in Washington is in a position to make it a reality. Until that happens there is going to be the continued tension between the zombie Reaganism of the older members of the GOP and its post-Trump directive on what their voters want. Claims will be made that Steve Bannon was the deciding factor here. He wasn’t – Flake’s fundamentals were bad well before Bannon was even a factor, in much the same way that Luther Strange’s fundamentals were bad before Bannon swung in to push Roy Moore. There is a bigger story here, which is that for once, Bannon and Republican donors are more in agreement – not about what is to be done, but about who they blame for not getting things done.
In the meantime, another round of strange new respect is in the offing for Flake. Mark Preston, head of programming for CNN, tweeted out:
To which my only response can be: B-A-N-A-N-A-S.