NPR’s well-known podcast, “This American Life,” recently aired an episode featuring the struggle of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to pass legislation excusing the illegal U.S. entry of foreign citizens in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
For reporter Zoe Chace and anyone else interested in virtue-signaling over substance, the podcast confirmed what “This American Life’s” producers obviously assume everyone in America thinks: righteous causes (meaning legislation the Left supports) should be above politics and simply pass via inspired acclamation, but are blocked from doing so because the president and Republicans are mean.
But for anyone who has worked on or pays attention to Capitol Hill, the episode was a mix of doe-eyed naiveté, performance art, gross over-simplification, and misplaced martyrdom.
How Jeff Flake Made His Name
First, a bit of context. I spent ten years on Capitol Hill, working in both the Senate and the House. As a junior staffer in the House, I first encountered Flake. He was then known as the strident anti-earmark warrior. Opposing earmarks was a bold move when they were the currency of power, and a ritual in which nearly every member of Congress engaged.
Flake didn’t win many of his fights against individual earmarks. But that wasn’t really the point. As a backbencher House member, he made shrewd use of the bully pulpit. The day after a spending bill was released, you’d find him on the House floor, calling out individual earmarks as wasteful, offering amendments to strike them, and daring their sponsors to come to the floor and challenge him.
The day he challenged my boss, I sat on the House floor watching Flake, in his earnest indignation (and waving around his shortened index finger for emphasis), making the case that the Burpee Museum of History in Rockford, Illinois, as pleasant as it may be, did not deserve to be singled out among many other small museums across the country to receive federal funds. He patiently withstood the wrath of the earmark’s sponsor, apologized for any perceived offense, but gently insisted that his amendment receive a vote. It did. It failed. Undeterred, Flake moved on to his next target.
The Jeff Flake of the House deserved the folk hero status he received for these efforts. He was standing for an unpopular principle in the face of public and unfriendly opposition from his peers, without pomp or sanctimony. His efforts almost singlehandedly led to the backlash against earmarking, which is now banned (in theory, anyway) in the House and Senate.
Amplifying Jeff Flake’s Bitterness Against His Own
The Jeff Flake of yore makes the current Jeff Flake, now a U.S. senator, look like a tinny, whiny, self-congratulatory version of his former self. Instead of gaining plaudits from the Right, he now courts adulation from the Left. Or, it seems, from anyone who thinks sanctimony is a proper substitute for, say, doing the actual work of policy making.
Enter “This American Life” and Chace. Admittedly, I am a fan of the podcast, which has set the standard for thoughtful, entertaining storytelling. That is where the podcast excels. Covering politics, however, is not. As this particular episode indicated, “This American Life” should stay in its lane.
Let’s start with the basics. In the opener, host Ira Glass announces that Chace has spent four months shadowing Flake as he attempts to pass a bill to codify the DACA program, put in place by President Obama to excuse kids illegally brought to the United States as children. Flake is, obviously, positioned as the hero.
A couple of things to note. First, members of Congress do not give reporters this kind of access unless they are retiring (which Flake is, but that announcement comes after Chace is already following him around) and they know the reporter is in the tank for them already.
To the latter point, Chace is in, hook, line and sinker. She spends most of her time fawning over Flake and his heroic quest against other Mean Republicans, raves about his adorable hopefulness, his Mormon upbringing, how he goes to the gym twice a day, and even includes an anecdote about his friendship with Manuel to prove how different he must be from other Republicans. In Chace’s world, it is apparently impossible for other Republicans to have Hispanic friends and be against DACA.
She is similarly taken with Flake’s chief of staff, Chandler Morse. Chandler eats bean dip! And popsicles! And lays on the floor!
Second, Chace also spends a large portion of the episode overly impressed at Flake’s “bluffing” and “strategic negotiating” to use his vote on the Republican tax bill to leverage a vote on DACA. Hi, welcome to how the Senate works, Zoe Chace. Nice of you to drop by.
Welcome to The Reid-McConnell Senate
In the Senate of yesteryear, senators did not have to engage in nearly so much horse trading. The floor was open, amendments were frequent, and deliberation on the Senate floor lasted for weeks. Process meant progress, and at the end of the debate, most bills were able to move forward without having to overcome a filibuster.
But the era of Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell has largely shut down the Senate floor, with bills written in secret by leadership staff with no amendment votes allowed. Behind-the-scenes deal making is now required for any senator to get what he or she wants. Thus, in exchanging his tax vote for a DACA commitment, Flake is not engaging in some high-stakes bravery. He’s doing what literally every other senator is doing.
Third, in discussing DACA’s passage, Chace and Flake demonstrate a dangerous level of naiveté. To Chace, the issue is crudely simple. DACA is popular. Ergo, DACA should pass. Her assumption is disturbingly naïve, failing to account for basic things like the structure of our government, the policy-making process, and the importance of deliberation in determining policy outcomes (Chris Jacobs provides a deeper dive on this point). Presumably Flake understands these things, but does nothing to correct her.
In fact, at no point do Flake or Chace discuss any of these seemingly relevant issues, including the actual details of what Flake is proposing, and why there are genuine objections to them, both on the Left and the Right. Those on the Right, in particular have thoughtful philosophical and policy arguments against DACA, which they see as incentivizing future illegal immigration and not actually solving the problem. None of this is discussed, or even mentioned.
The Sole Hero on a Quixotic Quest
Nor is it mentioned that the president, whom Chace largely blames for Flake’s failed efforts, actually offered to accept DACA legalization, in exchange for an end to chain migration and money for his border wall. Nowhere do we hear Flake’s views on the president’s offer and why he isn’t simply accepting it. Nor do we hear any details about any of the various other DACA proposals floating around Congress.
Chace, after all, only has eyes for Flake. She paints him as the sole hero in a quixotic quest, and Flake is more than willing to perform for her as such. The title of the podcast is, after all “The Impossible Dream.” Cue the orchestra.
Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, is Chace’s treatment of Flake’s “failure” to pass DACA as some kind of great, national shame. She implies Flake’s inability to pass his righteous piece of legislation that all of America supports is a reflection of congressional dysfunction, rather than actual problems inherent in Flake’s approach.
It’s true that Congress is dysfunctional, but not because it can’t pass DACA. In fact, in not getting his promised DACA vote, the Senate was actually doing what the Senate is supposed to do. Flake was simply ignorant in how to use his authority to get what he wanted.
In the Senate, members have equal power to push things forward, or to hold them back. At any point, Flake could have gone to the Senate floor and sought to bring up DACA as a bill or amendment instead of begging for the majority leader’s permission. Other senators may have used their own rights to object, but under the rules, Flake had plenty of options to leverage his position, including objecting to further Senate business until he got what he wanted. Any of the other six senators who supported Flake’s proposal could have done the same.
Contra Zoe “Jeff-Flake-is-the-ultimate-martyr” Chace, Flake’s failure to pass DACA is less about the big, bad world and more about his ignorance or unwillingness to go to the mat over the issue, or to convince more than six of his colleagues that it was a worthwhile endeavor to do so.
It’s Orchestrated Failure, Not Accidental
There is also the matter that Flake’s great humiliation over DACA barely registers when compared to the indignities his other colleagues suffer weekly as they struggle to get basic amendment votes, or, even worse, voice their dissent.
Chace is shocked (shocked!) that McConnell wordsmiths his promise to Flake to bring DACA to the floor in a way that provides him a loophole. Oh really? Chace should talk to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about the promise McConnell made to conservatives regarding the Export-Import Bank, only to turn around and publicly sell them out. Cruz had some thoughts about it. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to Chace.
Or she could look at the McConnell-engineered public beating Sen. Mike Lee took when he used the Senate rules to force a meaningful vote on Obamacare repeal in 2015. For days, Lee was shamed by the very same senators who ran campaign after campaign promising to repeal the law.
More recently, Chace could look at what happened to Sen. Rand Paul when he tried to get a simple amendment vote on a trillion-dollar spending bill. For this, Paul was called a “Senate pest,” and told he was “grossly irresponsible” and that his efforts were a “colossal waste of everyone’s time.”
Examples abound in the House of Representatives, as well, where conservatives are routinely stripped of committee assignments and kept out of cushy fundraising opportunities if they raise opposition to their leadership’s agenda.
These are the real stories of orchestrated failure, reflective of a dysfunctional institution. In this regard, Flake’s situation isn’t unique, nor is it even noteworthy. In fact, the only noteworthy aspect of this whole charade is how willingly uninformed the mainstream press is about how our congressional institutions actually work, and how far Flake is willing to lend his sanctimony to a mainstream media willing to adore him for it.