Jeff Flake’s experience raises the question.
My guide to questions of statesmanship is Abraham Lincoln, who was anti-immolation, although that doesn’t mean that he was unwilling to take risks or make stands on principle. When he became a Whig as a young man, he was pretty much joining the losing side in Illinois politics. You will often see quotes from his campaign against Stephen Douglas about race that don’t stand up well in retrospect, but this was in the course of trying to win an election where he had staked out treacherous ground on highly controversial proposition (namely, that all men are created equal). Lincoln was brave and wanted to move the needle in the nation’s debate, but he was never foolhardy or defied political reality just for the sake of it.
That brings us back to Flake. I fail to see how he moved the ball on anything. He might simply consider intolerable the dodging and weaving you have to do in the era of Trump as a high-level member of the Republican party with standards, and that’s a personal choice that I respect. But I don’t think it’s at all mandatory for a honorable politician — in fact, I think it’s ill-advised.
Paul Ryan constantly gets criticized for not pulling a Flake. What if he did? What would it accomplish? It would hurt Ryan and perhaps end his career; not hurt Trump at all or change his conduct in the slightest; diminish the chances of passing anything meaningful through Congress in the near-term in the ensuing chaos and acrimony; make it impossible for Ryan to block anything substantively objectionable that Trump might propose going forward and drastically diminish the influence Ryan would have in any future disputes over the direction of the party. Considering all of that, Ryan is acting entirely sensibly.
In my column today, I commend what I call the Lindsey Graham model. Graham is critical of Trump and calls him out and tries to correct him when he’s wrong, but hasn’t made a totalist critique, in fact maintains a relationship with Trump to try to have some sway over him. What’s wrong with that?
What Flake is objecting to at bottom is the character of the president of the United States. This isn’t a problem that is susceptible to a solution. No matter what anyone says or does, Trump will have the same character and still be president. Given that most politicians are pragmatists, it’s no wonder they note their problems with Trump in passing, or mumble and look at their shoes, and move on.
Of course, they have all the more incentive to do this given Trump’s standing with Republican voters. What has occurred in the GOP to this point has been more or less been inevitable since the night of the Indiana primary; once Trump became the nominee, he benefited from a partisan rallying-around effect that piled in on top of the devoted support of his hard-core fans. This effect became all the stronger when he won the election. Some in the GOP are Trump true believers who will rationalize anything he does, but many are fully aware of his flaws and, for now, just want to see him get a chance. Elected Republicans who actively defy this feeling do so at their peril, with no discernible upside.