Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., single-handedly paused Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s controversial Supreme Court nomination when he struck a last-minute deal Friday between Republicans who wanted to push it through, Democrats who wanted an FBI investigation into sexual misconduct claims against Kavanaugh and a handful of senators like Flake who weren’t sure what to do. Because of Flake, the FBI will investigate the allegations for a week, then the Senate will vote, likely with Flake’s approval, on confirming Kavanaugh.
It was a bold move that will help define Flake’s career. But, Flake said Sunday, it could only happen because his career in the Senate is ending. And that’s a striking thing to hear from the senator who forged a compromise on one of the most divisive Supreme Court nominations of our time. Compromise of this scale, Flake said, is essentially dead.
Or at least, it’s dead to anyone in Congress who has to run in a competitive reelection. Here’s what he told CBS’s Scott Pelley in an interview for “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday:
“Pelley: Senator Flake, you’ve announced that you’re not running for re-election and I wonder, could you have done this, if you were running for re-election?
“Flake: No, not a chance.
“Pelley: Not a chance?
“Flake: No, no.
“Pelley: Because politics has become too sharp, too partisan?
“Flake: There’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”
“There’s no currency 1/8for compromise3/8 anymore;” “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle.”
There’s no nuance in what Flake’s saying: That there is no political reward for Republican lawmakers to work with Democrats, or Democratic lawmakers to work with Republicans. Flake is a reliably conservative member of Congress, and yet he told Pelley there are demonstrations outside his home from conservatives protesting how he’s held up Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“It’s this whole tribal nature of politics that becomes shirts and skins,” he said. “It’s us-versus-them. There’s no room for compromise or doubt.”
Lawmakers in competitive reelection campaigns once might have been the likeliest ones to compromise because they wanted to win over some of the other party’s voters. But in this era, they’d be called out and maybe even abandoned by their base for it. We’ve seen how Republican senators who criticized Trump have had their approval ratings suddenly drop back in their home states.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who represent constituencies on the far left or far right have no incentive to upset their entrenched voters by working with the other side, lest there be protests outside their homes, too.
The backlash against Flake comes even though he is retiring at the end of this year, having seen the writing on the wall about what being a critic of President Donald Trump meant for him in Arizona. He was concerned he wouldn’t have enough support to win a competitive primary. So he decided to instead retire from his seat and embrace his role as one of Trump’s main GOP antagonists.
That was about a year ago. Since then, Flake has given multiple speeches denouncing aspects of Trump and Trumpism. But Friday’s decision to hold his vote for Kavanaugh until there was an FBI investigation marked one of his first concrete actions to stop Trump’s agenda. Because he is a swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee that advanced Kavanaugh’s nomination and a swing vote in the full Senate, Flake was in the right place at the right time to make a difference.
But he said he never would have gotten up and tapped his buddy, Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., on the shoulder to reach this deal if he had to face voters next month.
That’s not to say Flake is entirely free of consequences. Should Flake ever run for president, say as a challenger to Trump in 2020, this is not something Trump’s base of the Republican Party is likely to forget.
This primary season, we watched as voters in a conservative district in Alabama put a congresswoman, Rep. Martha Roby, on notice by sending her to a runoff two years after she said she couldn’t vote for Trump to be president. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., another reliably conservative member of Congress who has regularly criticized Trump, lost his primary after being on the receiving end of a Trump tweet urging voters to vote against him.
For now, though, Flake’s plan is to retire from Congress. That’s the only reason he said he could do what he did. Such is the sorry state of compromise right now in Washington.