Count me as one of the folks who was glad to see Jeff Flake pack his sh** and get off the battlefield. But as he exists in a cloud of sanctimony, it is important to understand why he got out of the race and why he didn’t and what it means. As a set up, I’m going to use this tweet by long time RedState leader, Erick Erickson.
Fraud and liar? Isn’t that a bit harsh. Erick looks at Flake’s record in the Senate:
Oh poor Jeff Flake. Jeff Flake got bullied out of Washington by Trumpism. Flake is such a nice guy and there is no room for nice guys in the GOP any more. I am seeing all this all over social media and it is such horse crap.
Jeff Flake is leaving the Senate because he is a crappy politician who built his brand as one thing, used it to get to the Senate, then betrayed that brand once there.
In a follow-on, Erick elaborates:
Jeff Flake had a 100% lifetime Club for Growth record in the United States House of Representatives. He was a conservative’s conservative and stood up to the House GOP leadership. He used that reputation to catapult himself into the Senate with the backing of most every major conservative group. He towed a tough line on the budget, Obamacare, immigration, etc.
Then he got to the Senate and promptly caved on it all. Friends of his tell me that he had no support system in the Senate. In the House, at least, there were other Club for Growth candidates. The smaller Senate with even fewer conservatives unleashed Jeff Flake’s need to be liked. He went from being a reliable Club for Growth members to a reliable Mitch McConnell member.
Voters in Arizona felt betrayed.
Democrats had no use for Flake because he spent years campaigning as a hard core conservative. Republicans had no use for him because he lied his way into the Senate, promptly doing the opposite of many of his core campaign promises. Flake failed to build a new coalition of support while heaping scorn on his existing coalition.
Flake could have been opposed to President Trump and even been outspoken about it. But he could not sell out his conservatism and then become an outspoken Trump critic. That is, however, what he chose to do.
So yesterday he gave a fancy speech giving all the anti-Trump forces their rhetorical viagra. The media fell over in a rapturous applause. And no one bothered to remember all politics is local. Jeff Flake defeated himself with a series of poor decision over six years that alienated him from his base, alienated Republican donors who he heavily pursued in 2012, and then alienated Trump fans.
This gives some more context to the revolt Flake was facing at home:
Ben Domenech in The Transom (sorry, it is subscription) has an equally good take:
…In his one term in the Senate he was more of a company man, a team player as Mitch McConnell said. And ultimately, that second version of Flake was caught in a bad place when the ground shifted under his feet.
Flake says he did not see a path to victory. He’s right, and a good indication of why came in this post announcement interview with Chuck Todd. Flake compared the current moment and the NFL protests to arguments about flag burning and Terry Schiavo, describing culture war politics as a politics of grievance and resentment. Here’s the transcript:
FLAKE: “In the book I talk about being this majority in the house during the period 2001 to 2006. I thought at that time there are some parallels to today. The other day when these protests in the NFL were coming on, I thought back, and I wrote about it in the book, that I knew we were in trouble as a party when we were spending on earmarking so badly and prescription drug benefits and whatever else. We lost the mantle of fiscal discipline as a party. So what did we do? We started to argue about things like flag burning or Terry Schiavo. And the wedge issues, the cultural issues. And then you know, we’re doing that now. And that – that doesn’t…
Flake’s problem, of course, is that Republican voters view it that way. Protecting nuns from paying for abortion pills isn’t resentment. Protecting gun rights isn’t resentment. And believing that the flag of the United States represents the greatest force for freedom in human history and deserves to be treated with respect is not resentment. And suggesting it is, suggesting these aren’t issues politicians should be talking about, is declaring disarmament in the culture wars – the opposite of what Republican voters clearly want.
The real resentment voters have is for Republican politicians who pretend during elections to be on their side, to share their priorities, to be ready to defend their beliefs – but turn out after the election to only defend on the things they’re comfortable talking to the media about… in other words, the only time when it doesn’t matter.
Jeff Flake 1.0 would have far fewer problems in the Trump era. He was a populist who raged against government corruption and cronyism. He would absolutely still criticize Trump, as many House conservatives still do, on trade and on transparency – but he would also be able to be with Trump on key issues instead of wagging his finger impotently on the way out the door. Draining the swamp is something Flake 1.0 would be all about getting right, and he’d be sticking around to make sure it got done. Flake 2.0 spent more time writing a book that now reads like an exit interview with Brave Brave Sir Robin.
The shorter version is that Flake forgot the advice my father gave me, “dance with them what brung you.” He abandoned his voters and he abandoned the principles he’d espoused just a few years ago. Jeff Flake shot himself in the foot and is now complaining because it hurts.
Which brings us to the second point. For the life of me, I can’t understand why people are trying to credit Breibart’s Steve Bannon with Flake pulling out of the race. I think the impulse to create a super-villain out of Bannon is very similar to the impulse to find Russians under your bed and neo-Nazis in the dirty clothes hamper. If Flake had stayed in and lost the race to Kelli Ward, then possibly the victory could be attributed to Bannon, but even then there was a lot more at play. But Flake decided that even if he did beat Ward that he was not going to be able to turn out enough Republicans to support him in the general and, being a company man in Mitch McConnell’s company, he took one for the team. To me, this speaks to the weakness of Bannon because a ward heeler can turn out votes for anyone. We’ll see who jumps in the race now that Flake is not running and my suspicions are that Ward is going to find her support withers once she is not facing Jeff Flake and that she will not be the nominee.
The season is young, but I find no evidence that Bannon can actually recruit a candidate, put together a campaign organization, or be the deciding factor in a race. I find a lot of evidence that Brietbart is fluffing this for the sake of clicks. When you look at the Roy Moore-Luther Strange match up in Alabama, you find that Strange really didn’t have a political base whereas Moore had a deep and devoted one. The White House was definitely ambivalent about Strange as evidenced when Trump announced at Strange’s campaign rally that if Strange lost, Trump would support Moore. Hardly a rousing endorsement. I have no doubt that the Breitbart operation can add a few, perhaps crucial, points to a total in a primary but that is a world away from being able to handpick candidates and shepherd them to wins.
Everything is not about Trump and not about Bannon, or so a lot of us believe. The voters of Arizona are not moral cretins participating in some spectacular morality play wherein their very souls are at stake. Voters are tired of the Failure Theater produced and directed by Mitch McConnell where we’re told the great and wonderful things that will be accomplished if only a few more GOP officeholders can be elected. They are looking at politicians in the same way a jaded sales manager looks at salesmen when he says, “I don’t care what you did last month, what have you done for me today?” They are tired of the abject surrender of large numbers of Republicans and so-called fiscal conservatives on social issues. The fact that Flake could deride letting a possibly sentient young woman be killed by depriving her of food and water as some sort of sideshow is appalling. The recent GOP love affair with free-trade for the sake of free-trade is going to run hard aground on the mass of Americans who feel that their children will have a poorer lifestyle. If politicians like Flake can’t make a cogent case as to why free-trade and essentially open-borders benefits their constituents, they are going to be cannon fodder in the coming primaries.
And it will be that conflict that beats them, not Steve Bannon.