It was just a month ago this Friday that Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., rose in the Senate to insist that we “must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue,” laying a hefty share of the blame for it on “the tone set up at the top.”
He used those remarks to condemn President Donald Trump for “the daily sundering of our country.” He lashed out at the president’s “flagrant disregard for truth and decency” and uttered the syllables “enough.”
It was some speech. And if he follows it by handing Trump a victory on tax reform, it was merely that: words. Pretty, yes. But pointless in the end.
The House of Representatives has already approved its own legislation to overhaul the nation’s tax code. The Senate’s version could come to a vote as soon as next week. No Democrat in the chamber supports it, so the GOP can afford to lose only two members of its caucus. Along with the votes of a few other Republicans, Flake’s is in doubt, and that colored another chapter of feuding between him and the president over recent days.
Flake attended a town hall in Arizona and, apparently unaware that his microphone was still on, said that if Republicans “become the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we are toast.”
Trump took this in customary stride, which is to say that he fired up his Twitter account and mocked “Sen. Jeff Flake(y),” who, he predicted, would “be a NO on tax cuts.” Flake responded that he had not made up his mind.
I’ll make it up for him: If he stands by that stirring Senate soliloquy and truly regards Trump as “dangerous to a democracy,” then this is much more than a vote about government revenue. It’s a choice between propping up and enfeebling an undeserving, unprincipled and frequently unhinged president who desperately needs a legislative triumph to hold on to his relevance and his best shot at a second term. Flake can lower corporate taxes or hobble Trump. In the grand scheme of things – in the scheme that he himself so eloquently laid out – there’s no contest between those concerns.
That would be true even if this were a piece of legislation in line with the conservative fiscal principles that Flake and many of his fellow Republicans in the Senate espouse. It’s not.
The last-minute addition of a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate and the various accounting gimmicks built into the bill aren’t there so that tax reform doesn’t add to deficits. They’re there so that it doesn’t add to deficits by more than $1.5 trillionover 10 years. You can’t support this legislation and call yourself a deficit hawk. More like a deficit ostrich.
That should be reason enough for Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to vote no. What’s more, he has also denounced Trump as “an utterly untruthful president” who needs “adult day care” and is “unable to rise to the occasion.” Does Corker want to march in lock step with such a disaster or trip him up?
That same question goes to John McCain, to Susan Collins and to other Senate Republicans who have indicated grave apprehensions about Trump. Their party’s donors may be demanding tax reform. They themselves may believe in some of the bill’s particulars. But do they believe in this president? In where he has tugged the GOP? Do they want to aid him, or put him behind them as quickly as possible?
Some Republicans beyond Trump would be hurt by a defeat on tax reform. But they’d be hurt more in the long run by sustained surrender to an undeserving man. To crib a phrase from Flake, they’d be toast.
In his book “Conscience of a Conservative,” which was published in August and was the prelude to his big speech, Flake wrote that Republicans indulged Trump by rationalizing that he might help them “achieve some long-held policy goals.” But Flake added that if this “put at risk our institutions and our values,” it raised the question of “whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones.”
That question is no less pertinent now. Trump continues, on an almost daily basis, to dishonor the presidency and debase civic life. We may be getting more used to him; he’s not getting any better. He picks gratuitous fights – with the widow of a slain soldier, with the father of a detained college basketball player. He curtsies to the Russians and the Chinese. He petrifies his own inner circle. His secretary of state supposedly called him a “moron.” His national security adviser reportedly opted for “idiot” and “dope.”
Flake’s message a month ago had a more elevated vocabulary but the same urgency. He said that lawmakers must be “unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it, because it does.” Was that preening or patriotism? He can show us with a single vote.