Jeff Flake Is Not the Future of the Republican Party

His warmed-over Goldwaterism is not the brand of conservatism the GOP or America needs.

Senator Jeff Flake
Sen. Jeff Flake talks to reporters as he arrives for a health care vote on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Nostalgia is sweet. When I think back to the happiest moments in my life, thoughts turn to eating heaping piles of steamed broccoli, lovingly prepared by my mother, while my whole family gathered around the TV to watch Unsolved Mysteries. Those were the days! Alas, although old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries are now magically available on Hulu, even the craggy visage of Robert Stack can’t quite bring me back to those halcyon days as a carefree 9-year-old. Which leads me to Jeff Flake.

Like a lot of Republicans—and I count myself among them—the junior senator from Arizona is mortified by Donald Trump. In his new book, Conscience of a Conservative, an homage to Barry Goldwater’s manifesto of (almost) the same name, Flake denounces the president not just for his boorishness, but for all of the many ways he dissents from the libertarian conservatism that has long been Flake’s credo. Some have sneered at Flake for the contrast between the senator’s voting record and the lacerating criticisms of Trump in his book and in his recent Politico op-ed. If you’re so opposed to Trump, why not do more to actually oppose him? My concern, though, is a bit different. It’s that Jeff Flake is living in the past.

To Flake, the only way forward for the GOP is to embrace the small-government philosophy he attributes to Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and to place the pursuit of more open trade and immigration policies at the heart of the party’s policy agenda. This is despite the fact that when Reagan championed higher immigration levels, the labor market position of less-skilled workers was just beginning its long, downward slide, a decline that has been hard on working-class natives and immigrants alike. In the Reagan era, we also didn’t already have a large population of immigrants and children of immigrants living in or near poverty, millions of whom depend on programs like Medicaid that Flake is so eager to slash.

As for trade policy, I have no quarrel with the idea that tariffs are bad. What is also true, however, is that the offshoring of high-tech profits to Ireland and other tax havens is at least as big a deal as the offshoring of low-wage jobs to China. Global imbalances also helped create the conditions for the last financial crisis and pose an ongoing threat to global prosperity. If we want to preserve the benefits of globalization, we should probably rewrite the tax code in ways that will displease multinationals, and we should also probably nudge surplus countries such as China and Germany into being more constructive economic partners.

None of this means Flake’s convictions are anything less than sincere or admirable. It’s just that the world has changed, and it’s not clear that Flake has changed with it.

If Republican opposition to Trump takes this form—that the problem with Trump is that he strays too far from libertarian orthodoxy—I can confidently say that the opposition will amount to nothing. Or rather, that it will amount to nothing more than a pretty good pitch to the Kochs and other like-minded donors to bankroll a hopeless presidential campaign.

It’s no secret that I’d like to see a serious Republican candidate challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2020 and that I believe there’s a better way forward than warmed-over Goldwaterism. Assuming Trump doesn’t undergo a personality-transforming lobotomy in the months to come, it would be good for the country and good for the party for someone on the right to make an effective case against him. As a sitting senator, Flake certainly qualifies as a serious Republican challenger. But if he runs as the candidate of 1980s nostalgia, he risks doing more harm than good. As political scientist Lee Drutman has observed, the constituency for Flake’s brand of soft libertarianism appears to be relatively small, both in the GOP and in the electorate at large. And if Flake’s case against Trump is that he’s just too darn nationalistic, the Arizona senator might wind up as the president’s perfect foil.