Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What Jeff Flake Can Do

Some more churlish reactors to Senator Jeff Flake's highly public call-out of President Trump -- for example, myself -- have been in turn criticized by those who think we're basically expecting Republicans to stop being Republicans. They're not going to stop supporting conservative policy priorities just because Trump is now backing them. And so Kevin Drum asks what, short of impeachment, someone like Flake can realistically do to tangibly oppose Trump (other than deliver rousing speeches to that effect)?

First, we might observe that if opposing Trump shouldn't convert conservatives into liberals, neither does opposing Trump convert terrible policies into acceptable ones. But the easy answer to the above question is "oversight". Holding hearings, launching investigations, having probes. There's no shortage to choose from, and a few well-positioned GOP Senators could really force these issues into the public eye in a way that'd be impossible for the Trump administration to ignore.

And here's where we do see a tension between "being a Republican" and "opposing Trump" where we can reasonably expect someone like Flake to pick the latter, and where he has not yet to date done so. There's no question that these probes and investigations would hurt the Republican Party. Rep. Trey Gowdy, he of BENGHAZI! fame, not only admitted as much, but basically said that's why he had no interest in launching any serious investigations. If the public narrative becomes "Trump administration mired in scandal", that will hurt the GOP nationwide, up and down the ballot.

But while it might be unreasonable to say "Jeff Flake should become pro-choice in order to 'stop Trump'," it's not unreasonable to say "Jeff Flake should be willing to sacrifice Republican political success in order to stop Trump."

We saw a similar dynamic recently when Paul Ryan refused to endorse censuring President Trump over his Charlottesville comments because it would be "partisan". On one level, it was a transparently absurd dodge: if Ryan endorsed the censure motion, it'd literally be the opposite of partisan -- it'd be bipartisan. But on another level, what Ryan almost certainly meant was "passing such a resolution would help Democrats more than Republicans." Speaker Ryan made clear that he wasn't willing to condemn White supremacy if doing so would hurt his party. Likewise, he won't encourage meaningful oversight of the Trump administration if doing so will hurt his party. It's not a policy barrier, but a partisan one -- Ryan won't take actions against Trump insofar as they might damage Republican political standing. And there's no justifying that.

So that's an arena where we can reasonably demand Flake do certain, tangible things. He can keep his far-right, substantively atrocious policy views, and keep voting on them. But if he isn't willing to use his remaining time as a Senator to investigate Trump -- hold hearings, launch probes, support subpoenas -- even where doing so likely will give Republican politicians an ongoing series of bad news cycles, then I think it's entirely fair to say that his "opposition" is of a false and cowardly kind.

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