It’s a powerful thing to have a tangible reminder of why you believe what you believe, why you fight for what you fight for, that can serve as a source of hope in today’s overwhelmingly disenchanting political world.
Mine? Words scribbled on the cover page of a book at a fateful arrested moment in time amidst the buzzing haste of Capitol Hill.
“Lizzie,” he wrote.
“Thanks for reading! Thanks for fighting for the future of the party.
And a friend he is.
A friend to the nation—to our undying, yet recently jaded, pursuit of American “articles of civic faith.”
A friend to the Republican Party, its reputation, and its future—despite its leaders’ and followers’ shrill cries to the contrary.
A friend to American conservatives who hope and who see that the only way forward toward greater political health and national unity is through taking a step backward—away from destructive politics and toward principle.
Most recently, this step backward came, rather literally, through Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s step away from the Republican side of the dais in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing room—away from the inflamed explosions of senators seeking to exonerate the name of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh—and toward the Democratic side of the dais, toward compromise. Enlisting the support of his friend across the aisle, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, Flake made the remarkable move to pause the process. In so doing, he required the entire Senate to take a step backward from casting final votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court for the FBI to conduct one last investigation into the former federal district judge’s past relating to “all current, credible” accusations of sexual misconduct alleged against him, most notably by his high school acquaintance, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
While the one-week investigation rendered no conclusive corroboration of any such allegations, Senator Flake’s daring, once more, to displease his own party for the sake of safeguarding at least some measure of trust in the Senate’s capacity for deliberative decision-making sent a significant reminder of why he is friend—not foe—to America’s conservatives.
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“The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding,” said Flake in an October 2017 Senate floor speech marking his station as the candid Republican senator willing to venture beyond the bounds of his party’s Trumpian orthodoxy, “are too vital to our identity and our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics because politics can make us silent when we should speak and silence can equal complicity.” The Republican senators who, throughout Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, seemed so bent on clawing onto power at any cost carelessly fueled the silencing “requirements of politics” that Flake identified as lethal to the “values of our founding” and the integrity of our governing institutions.
Make no mistake: while it may initially appear a radical step to take, diverging from the wishes of his own party, reaching across the aisle when, as he put it, “there’s just no incentive politically to reach across the aisle,” and transcending the bounds of complicit politics while surrendering his own political power was, in fact, a conservative move on Flake’s part.
Once again, Flake sacrificed his political self because he, as a conservative, knows that American greatness and our national political health lies in our ability to conserve our longstanding democratic institutions, our customary reverence for the Supreme Court and the impartiality we expect of its justices, and our once exceptional ability to graduate the “imperfect decisions” made by the Senate and, more broadly, by the American people into our “articles of civic faith”—our “birthright and our obligation.”
This is not grandstanding. This is not “playing politics.” This is not a “living embodiment of a faux-bipartisan West Wing plot line.”
Rather, this is what humility in the face of time-honored American traditions and institutions—and dedication to their preservation for future generations of Americans—looks like. This is the “conscience of a conservative.”
Before paving the way for the seventh FBI investigation of Kavanaugh, Flake made a point to affirm, “I’m a conservative, he’s a conservative judge. But I want a process we can be proud of.” He played his part in shaping that process, as a “matter of duty and conscience.” But he also revealed once more the perilous in-between space he inhabits in which Republicans decry him as a “moderate” and a fake conservative while Democrats deem him “spineless” for voting in line 84 percent of the time with the very president he delivers grand speeches criticizing. Flake is, like us all, “imperfect,” but he’s better than most by at least endeavoring to commit himself to principle, to listen to his conscience.
Yet, the blinders of hyper-partisanship and hunger for power which many of today’s Republicans and Democrats wear—and which Flake has shed since announcing his impending retirement from the Senate in January 2019—block from view that Flake votes for conservative legislation and judicial nominees favored by President Trump, while also calling out betrayals of American character and political convention, because he is conservative who strives to forge a “better politics for Republicans.” As he put in a recent 60 Minutes interview, “traditional Republicans are looking—yearning—for a more decent politics for people to get along and compromise where needed. Stand for your principles, yes, but understand that compromise is not a dirty word.”
The “traditional Republican” that Flake struggles to defend, that species of Republican who considers the party as having traditionally served as a responsible vehicle for American conservatism and old-school bipartisanship, is dying out as our friend Flake’s remaining days in the Senate dwindle, leaving in its stead a distorted, unrecognizable image of what it means to be a conservative in America today.
We see this image of a different, shallower sort of Republican, everywhere from D.C. to Duke’s own campus, who remains bent on an entirely partisan vision of “winning” and national prosperity and, in so doing, utterly lose sight of what’s at stake. They fallaciously believe that “we could have had a civil and level-headed debate” during the Kavanaugh hearings, if it weren’t for the “naivete and ideological entrenchment” of the Democrats who “thr[ew] by the wayside for short-term political leverage” our “fundamental principles of fairness.” As Flake recognized, the nastiness of the entire Kavanaugh debacle in the Senate was not simply a product of Democratic power play. Instead, it brought out the worst in both sides with eyes only for control, especially in those Republicans who held no qualms about Justice Kavanaugh’s blatant, non-judicial partisanship, about the great dangers in “politiciz[ing] the court,” and about the use of “anger and resentment” to achieve a hollow notion of “victory.” “When are we” Republicans, at Duke and beyond, “going to realize,” as Flake does, that “we’ve got to be a decent party,” even if that means we’re a losing one?
And for conservatives like me, it’s more than possible that soon all that will be left are these artifacts of former hope, like the note Jeff Flake scribbled in my copy of 'Conscience of a Conservative,' when the nastiness of power and politics finally pushes out all who, like Flake, yearned to be our good friends.
Lizzie Bond is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.