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Jeff Flake and the Republican resistance

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and his wife Cheryl Flake leave the U.S. Capitol as they are trailed by reporters, October 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and his wife Cheryl Flake leave the U.S. Capitol as they are trailed by reporters, October 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Jeff Flake's retreat from the Senate while skewering Trump won't advance conservatism. With impeachment a left-wing obsession, Republicans must pick a side.

Senator Jeff Flake is clearly a realist. But it's far from clear that he's the hero many in the media are cheering this week, after he gave a speech denouncing President Donald Trump. He also noted in the speech that he would not be running for office again next year.

Given his grim poll numbers, Flake was simply bowing to political facts by waving the white flag on his reelection fight. It's difficult to claim that he just wrote a new chapter in Profiles in Courage. Trump and those who laud the president are enemies of both conservatism and democracy, Flake cried — and then he announced his intentions to abandon the field of political battle.

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Like other recent rhetorical attacks on Trump from former president George W. Bush and Flake's fellow Arizona senator John McCain, Flake's pointed criticisms of Trump's character flaws and behavior failed to directly address the question that conservatives are going to have answer in the coming months and years as the liberal drumbeat for impeachment grows. How can Republicans simultaneously acquiesce to the liberal crusade to topple Trump while maintaining their integrity and advancing the conservative policy goals that can be achieved in the foreseeable future only via cooperation with the current administration?

If Flake, Bush, and McCain are now winning more cheers from Democrats than from Republicans, it's because none of them have an answer to that question. Trump's character flaws are worth serious criticism, but the moral calculus we must resolve is twofold: Do Republicans wish to be morally complicit in Trump's bad behavior? And are we so offended by him that we're willing to let our anger sink our policy agenda? If the issue is saving conservatism from Trump, how does sacrificing conservative policy goals in order to register distaste for the president do anything but help liberals preserve and revive the Obama agenda?

Flake is right that Trump has helped drag American politics to new depths with his "reckless, outrageous, and undignified" behavior. When attacked, Trump counters with shockingly personal assaults on his foes; these and his "flagrant disregard for truth and decency" are deeply troubling. But Flake's clear suggestion that Trump is a tangible threat to the future of the republic requires sober observers to separate atmospherics and personalities, however troubling they may be, from actual policy.

"Flake wasn't a strong enough figure to sustain an independent stand among Republicans, but he was also too conservative to attract Democratic crossovers."

Since the moment Trump took office, we've witnessed a steady stream of attacks on the administration, not so much for the president's obvious personal foibles but because his election is supposedly ushering in authoritarianism and the end of liberty. To date, despite the constant predictions of imminent doom, the republic and the Constitution still stand, even if many Americans are blushing at Trump's over-the-top statements, boasts, and tweets. The final judgment on whether Trump colluded with Russia or committed other wrongs must await the report of the special prosecutor. But very little of what we've heard or read would lead one to think that Trump is likely to be in legal jeopardy.

This hasn't impeded Democrats from rushing headlong toward their stated goal: Trump's impeachment. Figures such as Tom Steyer, the environmentalist and left-wing mega donor, are ready to fund an impeachment effort; columnists at the New York Times and the Washington Post are cheering them on. In this climate, it's obvious that we're heading toward a moment when American politics will become a zero-sum game whose outcome will hinge solely on Trump's survival. And Trump's survival might depend on how many Republicans are so disgusted with him that they abandon him.

Flake's dilemma is the product of failure. His book tour last summer — in which he proposed himself as the second coming of Barry Goldwater and the conservative alternative to Trump — earned him some favorable mentions on Morning Joe and other liberal outlets, but it bombed among most Republicans. Flake wasn't a strong enough figure to sustain an independent stand among Republicans, but he was also too conservative to attract Democratic crossovers. Even as liberal editorial pages lauded Flake for his Senate-withdrawal speech this week, late-night comedian Seth Myers attacked him by pointing that he'd voted for all of Trump's Cabinet appointments.

It's that last point that ought to serve as a reminder to Republicans: For all of their justified umbrage about Trump, if policy questions still mean anything to them, preserving this flawed presidency against the attacks of Trump's foes is their only hope of getting anything done. That dichotomy is the key to understanding why the anti-Trump manifestos from Flake, Bush, and McCain aren't shifting Republican opinion.

During the presidential campaign, there was good reason for many conservatives to voice concerns like those McCain has recently expressed — that Trump was abandoning the ideals America has advanced around the world. Comments like Bush's recent barb about "nationalism distorted into nativism" also made sense. But for all of Trump's loose talk and Bannon's boasts about purging the party, we haven't, as of yet, seen any massive shift in U.S. foreign policy. Trump's desire for a new détente with Vladimir Putin's Russia has gotten nowhere. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has become a leading administration voice, advocating exactly the kind of global engagement and support for American ideals that Bush and McCain support.

So far, and despite some notable wins, such as on education policy and in the battle against ISIS, the administration has a reputation for incompetence. But, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fond of pointing out, Trump is still the only Republican who can sign a bill into law. If we are to see tax reform or foreign-policy gains (e.g., reversing Obama's appeasement of Iran), we will require a Republican president. Trump is the only one we've got. Without him, the GOP might as well surrender to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer right now.

It's also worth pointing out that on some issues, such as Iran, Trump has a firmer grasp of the problem than some of the so-called adults like Senator Bob Corker who seek to restrain him. Nor is Trump quite the idiot that his detractors always assume him to be, as he proved this week by brushing back any notion of a cap on 401(k) contributions. What may well be the most conservative cabinet in recent memory — a cabinet that Flake voted for — should also remind Republicans of what's at stake when they support the anti-Trump resistance.

Principled Republicans aren't wrong to be offended by Trump. They aren't wrong to worry about the long-term damage to the GOP brand Trump might do if he can't achieve major policy victories and if he permanently undermines the moral standing of the party.

But at this point, abandoning him — as Flake, Bush, and McCain seem to be leaning toward — will neither save the GOP nor allow it to accomplish anything in what may prove a brief window of opportunity. When else will Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House? Democrats lack any real agenda except a push for impeachment. Are Republicans ready to join them? They must pick a side. They can't be neutral about the man the voters stuck them with. Which is why most Republicans won't follow Flake into the lifeboats while the GOP ship is still afloat.

Commentary by Jonathan S. Tobin, a contributor at National Review Online and opinion editor at JNS.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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©2017 National Review. Used with permission.