In a seminal speech Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced that he would not seek re-election because he did not want to accommodate himself to the “new normal” of Donald Trump‘s Republican Party and did not want to adjust to the “present coarseness of our national dialogue.” The speech stood out for its emphasis on the failure of moral leadership in the Republican Party, with the word “principle” appearing 13 times and “values” 11.
Flake rejects the messaging and policy coming out of the White House because he is emphatically a champion of the “old normal.” The White House’s Twitter response offered a different take on Flake’s motivation, but its crudeness affirmed his statements about how the president has degraded politics in Washington: “The reason Flake and Corker dropped out of the Senate race is very simple, they had zero chance of being elected. Now act so hurt & wounded!”
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., criticized Trump in announcing his decision not to seek re-election in 2018.
As the news industry struggles to keep up with the volleys lobbed between Trump and his critics, it seems that the Flake speech has struck a chord. He and many Republicans have a name for that “old normal” that they are committed to reinvigorating: conservatism. Once at the forefront of a revolution in the party, where do these conservatives stand now?
By exhorting them to stand on the traditions and values of the nation’s founders, Flake is channeling his hero Barry Goldwater, who once held Flake’s Senate seat. Flake models his career on the moral philosophy outlined and practiced by Goldwater. But that philosophy is unswerving, prioritizing conservative values above all else. And that is now why the party is drifting away from him, as it did from Goldwater in the twilight of his career. As Flake’s purportedly conservative colleagues embrace Trumpism, they are actually advancing what has become the Republican Party’s main agenda: winning elections.
More than ever before, Sen. Flake is challenging his party to re-evaluate its core values by returning to its roots. In fact, Goldwater first galvanized the American Right precisely this way. He convinced them that the Republican Party should belong to them, a western and Midwestern movement of ordinary God-loving people, not the moderate elites in New York City who he argued were insufficiently ideological. When Goldwater ran for president in 1964, he delivered the most victorious loss in American history. Even while getting clobbered, he propelled the conservative movement to a half-century of great success.
For Goldwater, these values were not merely campaign fodder, but governing values. Over many years, he developed a conservative policy tradition, starting as a Phoenix city booster when he ran Goldwater’s department store and won a seat on the city council in 1949, then as a five-term U.S. senator. This meant using government to nurture a business-friendly environment that kept taxes low, regulation on industry minimal and unions weak. Goldwater combined his pro-growth libertarianism with patriotic, Christian citizenship ideals.
He became the father of the conservative movement when, in 1960, he packaged these ideas together with the help of ghostwriter Brent Bozell into a popular, easy-to-digest paperback. A movement found itself when “The Conscience of a Conservative” became its bible. It wasn’t that people read and adopted its ideas so much as they read and discovered themselves. Goldwater and Bozell expressed the transformation that millions of Americans wanted to see in politics.
The book focused on how dangerous the federal government had become because it had amassed enormous power, which it used to excessively interfere in the daily lives and economic activity of Americans. “The farmer is told how much wheat he can grow. The wage earner is at the mercy of national union leaders whose great power is a direct consequence of federal labor legislation. The businessman is hampered by a maze of government regulations, and often by direct government competition.”
Goldwater and Bozell somehow addressed a swelling populist rage that had been building against the New Deal welfare state, while providing a manual for dignified political discourse. Unlike materialist liberals, they wrote, conservatives take account of the “whole man.” “The Conservative realizes … that man’s development, in both its spiritual and material aspects, is not something that can be directed by outside forces.”
Four million copies later, the book remains in print today. And it served as the inspiration for Flake’s new manifesto, which shares its title but is accompanied by the pointed subtitle: “A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” This 21st century reboot is less about policy and philosophy than about character and how populism is debasing the GOP and threatening to undermine the basic pillars of American freedom.
Like Goldwater, Flake also has a conservative policy record. He has pushed for tax cuts and deregulation. And indeed, his outspoken defiance against Trump has been about morals and policy areas where Trump deserts conservatism. His anti-Trump rhetoric seems infused by Goldwater’s influence. It echoes the outcry against “moral decay” offered by Goldwater during his presidential campaign to an electorate becoming alarmed over delinquency, urban riots and unrest on college campuses.
This moral aspect of conservatism mattered for Goldwater. In fact he achieved legendary status in part because “Mr. Conservative” was truly “Mr. Principle,” compelled to break ranks with his party when his principles demanded it. In the 1990s he openly supported gay rights, which contradicted the agenda of ascendant religious conservatives. Though himself Christian, he deplored how religiosity came to dominate the party’s agenda after 1980.
And yet, for all of his principled opposition, he also understood how to govern. Speaking about “preachers” in the Republican Party, his friend John Dean quotes him as saying, “Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
Flake, like Goldwater, laments the end of compromise and how it has paralyzed Congress. Flake asks, point blank, in his “Conscience of a Conservative,” “What Would Goldwater Do?”
But in leaving office, Flake is doing the opposite of what Goldwater did. He is not launching a career but ending one, ultimately raising the question: Is this the end for him and American conservatism?
Flake believes not. On Tuesday he asserted that Trump’s brand of populism and scapegoating are a “spell (that) will eventually break.”
One has to wonder, though, as populists lay waste to Republican incumbents. Remember Eric Cantor? Trump’s supporters seem to be taking over the party, just as the Christian Right swatted aside Goldwater’s objections on the way to turning issues like abortion and opposition to gay rights into Republican litmus tests. The marginalization of first Goldwater conservatism, and now, three decades later, its descendant, Flake conservatism, reveals that the Republican Party’s ideals are far more malleable than the conservatism espoused by Goldwater and Flake.
Many Republicans want to win and will sacrifice conservative values for electoral power. But if Trumpism takes over the party, it will also have to prove capable of governing. So far, the president’s successes have added up mainly to anti-government – using executive orders to undo as much of the Obama legacy as he can manage. The policymaking, which requires members of Congress to work together for tax and health-care reform, has not yet been realized.
The great irony is that Jeff Flake, as mouthy as he is, has actually been a good player for team Trump. While criticizing the president for bad behavior, he voted with him pretty consistently. Will the successors to these outgoing conservative incumbents support the president so loyally? Will the maverick tendencies that won them the adulation of a populist base allow them such obedience to the establishment? Can the Roy Moores or Kelli Wards of the Republican Party work with colleagues in their party and across the aisle to advance legislation?
Reading and watching Jeff Flake leads me to channel Mr. Conservative again here and wonder, “What would Goldwater say?” His answer would almost certainly be: I doubt it.
Nickerson is associate professor of history at Loyola University History and author of “Mothers of Conservatism: Women and the Postwar Right.”