Some politicians write books with one guiding principle: Upset no potential supporter.
Jeff Flake has decided to be plenty upsetting. His book, released last month, braves the enmity of the president, tears into his own Republican Party and could help lose him the U.S. Senate seat from Arizona that he has held since 2013.
“Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle” came out during a month that started with one-upmanship between Donald Trump and his nuclear-armed counterpart in North Korea. August then slouched into Charlottesville, Va., and the president’s tortured responses to white supremacist violence. Trump then visited Flake’s state for a rally in which the president said of the author: “Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who is weak on border (security), weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him.”
It’s hard to imagine a better set of illustrations for Flake’s contention that the party of Trump is hooked on “a sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”
“We have given in to the politics of anger — the belief that riling up the base can make up for failed attempts to broaden the electorate,” Flake writes. “These are the spasms of a dying party.”
Coming in at just 136 pages, “Conscience of a Conservative” isn’t as heavy on biography as fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2000 book “Faith of My Fathers.” We learn that Flake grew up working alongside migrants on his family’s ranch in Snowflake, Ariz., a town named in part for his Mormon great-great grandfather. Following missionary work in South Africa, he ran the conservative Goldwater Institute think tank, then won a U.S. House seat in 2000 before rising to the upper chamber. He tells us that two immigrant doctors, a Palestinian and an Afghan, saved the life of his father-in-law.
Flake’s main focus is the state of American politics, especially its broken conservative wing.
A conservative, according to Flake, is someone who believes “that there are limits to what government can and should do, that there are some problems that government cannot solve and shouldn’t blunder into, and that human initiative is best when left unfettered.” But with Trump’s rise, he writes, “conservatism has been compromised by a decidedly unconservative stew of celebrity and authoritarianism.”
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The G.O.P., Flake contends, has replaced its tradition of “vigorous debate” with “a race to the bottom to see who can be meaner and madder and crazier.” It has turned its back on the principles laid out by 1964 standard-bearer Barry Goldwater — whose book “The Conscience of a Conservative” inspired Flake’s choice of title — and honed by President Ronald Reagan.
The senator characterizes the president as a trafficker in falsehoods, from the challenge to Barack Obama’s birth certificate to the claim that millions of noncitizens voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Flake asks of his party: “How did we embrace incoherence?”
Flake didn’t vote for Trump, and jousts with him on immigration and free trade. Coming from a border state, he writes of damaged U.S.-Mexican relations with particular authority.
Migrant farm workers used to come north to pick, then return south to their families, he writes. Tightened border controls forced those workers to curtail their crossings by bringing along their families — exactly the opposite of the stated intentions of those who now call for “the wall.”
Similarly, the shift of jobs southward, he writes, is driven by companies’ desire to take advantage of the many free trade agreements that Mexico has with other countries. To tear up NAFTA and similar pacts, he contends, would only make the U.S. less competitive.
His prescription is not surprising: A return to conservative principles and civil discourse. Readers from the growing political fringes might not find that particularly compelling. But anyone who can still see a political center, and who yearns for more thoughtful governance, should be refreshed by Flake’s clear and frank critique.
Up for re-election next year, Flake faces primary challenger Kelli Ward, who pledges on her homepage to “stand with President Trump and fight to make Arizona great again.” The senator had to know that this book would be used against him. The fact that he wrote it anyway is another point in its favor.