The myth of the honorable Republican senator

Opinion by Sean Casey
June 4, 2020, 9:58 p.m.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Our Republican legislators, for all their faults, are decent, fair-minded folks committed to the common interest — it’s the cesspool of Washington politics that is to blame for the dire straits in which we find our country. Former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) argued along such lines at a Stanford in Government event the Thursday before last, contending that most conservative congresspeople are good guys in a bad spot. According to Flake, his erstwhile colleagues — traditional though they may be — are essentially moral, genuine, just. Many even wish Trump were out of office, replaced by someone a little steadier and a little saner, and this silent majority would curb the excesses of the current administration if only it were electorally tenable to do so. To hear Flake tell it, these are honest men and women caught in a bind, and, if necessary, they will do what’s right. Maybe so, maybe so. Yet Flake fails to answer the obvious question: Where are these honorable Republicans now?

Our nation is in the midst of a crisis not seen since World War II. It has rarely been more important for our representatives in government to put their personal incentives aside and defend the life and liberty of those they are sworn to protect. Yet what do we see? Partisan warfare, political waffling, state-sponsored medical malpractice on a massive scale. Hard-heartedness. Racism. And to top it off, a president that encourages violence and a governing party that lets him. Again and again, those trustworthy, noble Republicans roll over on every issue imaginable. Susan Collins, independent-minded feminist, voted for Kavanaugh. Lindsey Graham, friend of Joe Biden, called for a conspiracy-based investigation into Biden’s son. Richard Burr profited off the pandemic. Rand Paul attacked the director of the National Institutes of Health. There isn’t an ounce of spine or a flicker of empathy among the lot of them, and Flake is naive to think that these people are working for anyone but themselves.

More naive is the idea that the Republican Party can be saved. Flake believes that a resurgence of leadership is all that stands between his former colleagues and moral redemption. A wave of individualist thinkers could sweep away the rot at the core of our politics, and we could all get back to the business of bettering lives. A nice thought. But Flake is mistaken for a reason as simple as it is sad: The modern GOP has ceased to be an instrument for a cogent political ideology. It is not the party of limited government and personal freedom — indeed, those principles apply only when the other side is in control. Nor is it the party of social conservatism: The occupant of the White House is proof enough of that. At present, the GOP is merely the party of power, of keeping it and wielding it, of doing whatever it takes to win. It stands for nothing. It means nothing. Its battles are political, and its judgment are amoral, and little matters to it except victories and votes. And that is why Flake is incorrect: No amount of leadership or rugged individualism can rekindle a flame of conscience long-since extinguished.

Nowhere is this abdication of duty more evident than in Republican responses to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd. Absent are grief or reproach or empathy. Their tears are for the dollar, not the dead, and their every action conveys the disdain they have for the issues at hand. It’s Ted Cruz calling peaceful demonstrations an “abuse of power.” It’s Mitch McConnell condoning the tear-gassing of protestors. It’s the decades of parliamentary inaction, indifference and ignorance that brought us to this point, and the refusal to engage with police brutality even now. These aren’t Senators; these are hardly people. They are unrecognizable as public servants, and Flake is wrong to see them as such.

Still, some empathy is warranted. Flake was one of the few partisans to stand up to Trump, and for that he deserves credit. Perhaps his perspective is understandable — the man is a conservative, exiled or not, and no one wants to break with their party. But to maintain the fiction that these are just good guys in a bad spot, that Republican complicity is not ruthlessness but weakness, is to entirely underestimate a political organization Flake knows all too well. McConnell said it himself: It’s the judges, stupid. The GOP is not standing idly by out of fear of an executive tweet or a primary challenge. They are not afraid of this president. They are enabling him, empowering him, using him for their own ends. Trump is a riot of the American soul, and Republican lawmakers are the true looters, picking through the rubble of a ruined nation for judicial appointments. So tell us, Jeff Flake: Where’s the honor in that?

Contact Sean Casey at spcasey ‘at’

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