Even When Jeff Flake Is Right, He’s Wrong

There was a lot to like about Arizona Republican Jeff Flake’s speech on the Senate floor yesterday.

It was an impassioned call for a decency that is sorely lacking in our politics today, and on substance I think he was largely correct. The coarseness that has become the new normal in Washington is indeed lamentable, and–more dangerously–it has also obfuscated the debate over what should be far more important issues. President Trump, who has an unfortunate habit of running his mouth when prudence would be a far better course of action, bears a great amount of responsibility for this sorry state of affairs, and Flake was justified in calling him out for it.

What Flake doesn’t realize is that he’s also dead wrong.

Here’s the passage that undermines his own argument:

Here today I stand to say that we would be better served — we would better serve the country — by better fulfilling our obligations under the Constitution by adhering to our Article 1 — “old normal,” Mr. Madison’s doctrine of separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary — and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 — held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract with each other, if necessary.

“Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote. But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency? Were the shoe on the other foot, we Republicans — would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats?

The answer to that question is yes, the GOP has meekly accepted such behavior from dominant Democrats–and they’ve been doing it for a long time. An ad featuring a Paul Ryan lookalike pushing granny over a cliff in her wheelchair? Check. How about another one accusing George W. Bush of going easy on the monsters who dragged a black man to death in Texas? Got that too. Let’s also not forget Harry “Red Eye” Reid calling Mitt Romney a tax cheat on the Senate floor. Republicans grumbled about it, but ultimately Reid suffered no consequences for his slander. Then there was 8 years of the Bush presidency, during which he was accused of everything from knowing about 9/11 in advance to blowing up the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Bush never wanted to sully the dignity of his office by fighting back, which was noble–but it also allowed his enemies, including the media, to define him.

None of that happened in a vacuum. GOP voters noticed, and started asking, “How come our guys don’t get as nasty with them as they get with us?” In short, they got sick of Democrat bullies kicking sand in their faces on the beach and decided to send away for Donald Trump’s body building kit.

Flake goes on to say:

We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard-won and vulnerable they are.

Again, he’s talking about Trump here–but couldn’t he just as easily be talking about the media? What have they been doing, if not dividing us along the lines of man and woman, black and white, straight and gay, liberal and conservative? With every issue, they try to drive a wedge between Americans and then peddle the outrage, turning it into clicks and views while pushing a simple, constant narrative: Democrats Good, Republicans Bad! That’s also the old normal–one in which conservatives reliably lose. If those are the good old days Jeff Flake is pining for, he can have them.

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