Sen. Jeff Flake: 'As Conservatives, Our First Obligation Is To Be Honest'

Jul 31, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 12:45 pm

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., chose a dramatic moment to question the direction of his party.

Flake, a longtime critic of President Trump, has written a book detailing where he thinks his party has gone wrong.

"I'm not blaming this lack of principle, or where we are, solely on the president. He's more the culmination of it," Flake says.

Flake never endorsed his party's presidential candidate. He has praised many of Trump's appointments but is dismayed by his policies. Now he's preparing to campaign for re-election in 2018 amid talk that the president would like someone to challenge Flake in a primary.

During this time he's been critiquing the president, Flake has written Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, a book he says he wrote in secret. Even his staff didn't know until recently.

It carries a provocative title, borrowed from another book, which was written by Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., generations ago. It had been more than five decades since Goldwater concluded that the GOP had been, Flake says, "compromised" by big, New Deal-era federal bureaucracy and was moving away from the principles of limited government. It was time to reassess, he says.

"I'm very troubled about where the Republican Party is now. It seems that we've been compromised, but this time by different forces — those of populism and protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia and I'm concerned about how we remain a governing party with those principles," he says.


Interview Highlights

On what went wrong

This is a long time in coming. I got here in Washington in 2001. ... And we got [President George W. Bush's education overhaul law] No Child Left Behind, which was, I thought, big federal overreach into local education policy. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn't think that was a very conservative thing to do.

When we couldn't argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that we wouldn't have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending.

On how that sowed the seeds for the rise of President Trump

I do think that we made the ground fertile for somebody like President Trump to come along, and I think that now we've abandoned many of our principles — like free trade and American leadership around the world — but also we've become a coarser party. Being a conservative isn't just adopting conservative policies. I think it matters in terms of demeanor and comportment.

I certainly recognize the frustrations that people have. I feel and hear it every day. ... People are concerned about their jobs, their economic future. They wonder if their kids will have the same economic opportunities that they've had, and I think Donald Trump kind of spoke to that.

But I think as conservatives, our first obligation is to be honest with people and telling factory workers for example — it's always easier for a politician to point to a shuttered factory and say "That's because of free trade. That's because Mexico took those jobs, or China did." But what is not recognized is that it's largely been productivity gains and automation. We manufacture twice as much as we did in the 1980s with one-third fewer workers and those productivity gains will continue. Globalization has happened and the question is: Do we harness it for our benefit or are we left behind by it?

On why he wrote the book in secret

I have good people around me who are committed to principle, but the political world will tell you keep quiet, don't take a risk [when you're up for re-election] and I thought that it was important to stand up when I had something to risk. I think it means more at that point.

Morning Edition editor Arezou Rezvani and producer Barton Girdwood and Digital News producer Heidi Glenn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A Republican senator has chosen a dramatic moment to question the direction of his party.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona is a longtime critic of President Trump. Now he has written a book detailing where he thinks his party has gone wrong.

JEFF FLAKE: I'm not blaming this I think lack of principle or where we are solely on the president. He's more the culmination of it.

MARTIN: Flake never endorsed his party's presidential candidate. He has praised many of Trump's appointments but is mostly dismayed by his policies. Now he's preparing to campaign for re-election in 2018 even as White House officials have met with potential primary challengers to Flake.

INSKEEP: And it's at this tense moment that Senator Flake has been secretly writing his book. He says even his closest advisers did not know about it until recently. It carries a provocative title, a title borrowed from another book written more than half a century ago by Arizona Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

So why'd you write a book called "Conscience Of A Conservative"?

FLAKE: Well, you know, it's been 56 years now since Goldwater, you know, back in 1960 realized that the Republican Party had kind of been compromised by the New Deal. And...

INSKEEP: Meaning - when you say compromised by the New Deal, meaning that Republicans, in his view, had become too accepting of big social programs.

FLAKE: That's right. That's right - compromised by, you know, huge federal bureaucracy and that the concept of limited government was going. Well, I thought, you know, now we're, you know, 56 years in. It was time to reassess where we are. And I'm very troubled about where the Republican Party is now. It seems that we've been compromised but this time by different forces, those of populism and protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia. And I'm concerned about how we remain a governing party with those principles.

INSKEEP: What went wrong?

FLAKE: You know, this is a long time in coming. I got here to Washington in 2001 - myself and Mike Pence, actually. We both ran conservative think tanks in the '90s. We knew each other then. But then we got to Washington in 2001. And we got the No Child Left Behind which was I thought big federal overreach into local education policy, and that...

INSKEEP: President Bush's signature education policy.

FLAKE: That's right. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn't think that that was a very conservative thing to do. When we couldn't argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning (laughter) or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that, you know, we wouldn't have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me the backstory of the rise of President Trump, the conditions that made it possible for him to become the presidential nominee and the president?

FLAKE: Very much so. I do think that we made the ground fertile for somebody like President Trump to come along. And I think that now we've abandoned many of our principles like free trade and American leadership around the world. But also, we've become a coarser party.

Being a conservative isn't just adopting conservative policies. I think it matters in terms of demeanor and comportment. With foreign policy, for example, I think a conservative foreign policy is something that is steady and predictable, where you embrace your allies and recognize your adversaries. You know, I don't see that much now.

INSKEEP: Why do you think 62 million Americans voted for President Trump?

FLAKE: I certainly recognize the frustrations that people have. I feel and hear it every day when I'm home, when I go to the grocery store or to the gym or anywhere. People are concerned about their jobs, their economic future. They wonder if their kids will have the same opportunities that they've had. And I think Donald Trump kind of spoke to that.

But I think as conservatives, our first obligation is to be honest with people. And telling factory workers, for example - it's always easier for a politician to point to a shuttered factory and say, that's because of free trade; that's because Mexico took those jobs or China did. And what...

INSKEEP: And sometimes there may be a little truth to that.

FLAKE: But what is not recognized is that it's largely been productivity gains and automation.

INSKEEP: That have put people out of work.

FLAKE: We manufacture - yeah, that's right. We manufacture twice as much as we did in the 1980s with one-third fewer workers. And those productivity gains will continue. Globalization has happened. And the question is, do we harness it for our benefit, or are we left behind by it?

We are, you know, less than 5 percent of the world's population, and we're less than 20 percent of the world's economic output. If we don't find new markets for our goods, if we don't trade and enter into multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, we'll be left behind. And we won't grow economically.

INSKEEP: Why did you write this book in secret?

FLAKE: Well, you know, I'm up for re-election in a year. And any good political consultant - and I have a lot of them (laughter) around me and advisers who advise me. And they're doing their job if they're telling me, you know, don't do anything risky; don't do anything that would anger any individual person or a group. Kind of lay low. That's what good political consultants tell you.

But I thought that this was too important. And I felt that, you know, we need to return to principle. It's never - there's never seems to be a convenient time, certainly not when you're up for election. But if I waited until I was safely re-elected and then wrote the book, it wouldn't mean as much.

INSKEEP: I think...

FLAKE: It means more when there's something at risk.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that you kept it secret because you didn't want anyone to even have a chance to talk you out of it.

FLAKE: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: And...

FLAKE: And I tell you, I have good people around me who are committed to principle. But you know, the political world will tell you, you know, keep quiet. Don't take the risk. And I thought that it was important to stand up when I had something to risk. I think it means more at that point.

INSKEEP: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, thanks very much.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "HUMAN QUALITIES")

INSKEEP: His new book is called "Conscience Of A Conservative: A Rejection Of Destructive Politics And A Return To Principle."

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY'S "HUMAN QUALITIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.