Sen. Jeff Flake’s recent speech on the floor of the Senate announcing his retirement laments, among other things, the lack of principled behavior in our government. He concludes that he will better serve the people of Arizona and the country by not seeking re-election and, in doing so, extricating himself from the “political consideration that consumed far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise too many principles.” He pledges to spend the balance of his term being “unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it, because it does.”
Unfortunately, by announcing his retirement, Flake takes the path of least resistance and becomes a casualty to the “new normal” he despises. Failing to understand that his immediate lame-duck status essentially neuters his ability to fight for or deliver effective change.
He describes this step as risking his career for the sake of his principles, but takes no risk. To the contrary, he avoids the fight and opportunity to demonstrate his vision for his country and party.
He doesn’t want to engage in the highly negative, attack-style campaign that’s pervasive in American politics. But he’s also avoiding an opportunity to take the road less traveled and show voters we must conduct elections in which we fully vet the day’s compelling issues. To that end, Flake’s abdication robs us of a much needed exercise in discourse versus dysfunction that only a sitting U.S. senator is capable of waging.
That battle, and all the relevant media and debate, will occur in the primary and the general election. He’ll becomes a sideshow at best. At some point he will likely throw his support to one of the primary contestants and, with that, lose any remaining relevancy.
To break the cycle of dysfunction and polarization, we need leaders willing to take the risks Flake avoids.
I heard snippets of an unvarnished conversation between Flake and “This American Life” reporter Zoe Chace in which he reflects upon a legislative branch that has lost its compass. During that conversation, he also discusses his re-election and, in a slightly nuanced version, states, “I can’t run the way I would have to run to have an easy re-election.”
And therein lies the crux of the issue. Our career politicians want all the benefits of incumbency without the responsibility and burdens of governing.
I do not doubt the sincerity or intent of Flake’s floor speech. But if he truly wants to make a difference, he needs to fight the battle of his life and seek re-election. If he doesn’t think the Republican primary is the appropriate venue, he can run as a third-party candidate or as an independent.
If he truly believes that our country depends on it, then he has to find the intestinal fortitude to fight to win.
In doing so, he has an opportunity to demonstrate the value of statesmanship and civility by running a positive, issue-based campaign — the kind he professes he wishes he could run. He can force his opponents to face the critical issues of the day and stake out positions they will take if and when elected to office.
He can command the stage for the next year and push for victories in ways that are not available to those sitting on the sidelines. In losing, should that be the outcome, Flake can do far more to fix the system (a system he has grown to despise) in ways that will never result from a speech that is already collecting dust.