President Donald Trump’s unpopularity in the Republican Party has presented Senate Republicans like Jeff Flake with a golden opportunity for statesmanship.
Instead of refusing to run in 2018, Flake should unite Senate Democrats and Republicans in a bipartisan, consolidated movement against Trump and his Republican loyalists. Not only would it curb Trump’s presidential demagoguery, a movement like this would loosen the stranglehold of mindless party loyalty — “hyperpartisanship,” as some scholars have dubbed it — on our political institutions, thereby breathing life into our asphyxiated government.
Flake’s announcement that he will not seek re-election in 2018 is even more disappointing, since his statement shows that he has diagnosed our current political condition admirably: “Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course not — and we would be wrong if we did.”
Flake’s contention is that unthinking commitment to one’s party disrupts the Constitution’s separation of powers system. To this end, Flake cites James Madison’s classic principle of government: If separation of powers is to function well, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
Flake’s twofold point is that Republican senators — and, for that matter, House representatives — who should be ambitiously opposing Trump are not, and that hyperpartisanship is to blame. As a result, Trump is running roughshod over all that is good and decent in our political order, unopposed by the other branches of government, whom hyperpartisanship has left in disarray.
Yet, in citing the Federalist as he did, Flake betrayed a misguided reading of Madison, which explains why he is quitting the Senate rather than standing up for it.
In the very next sentence of Federalist 51, after the sentence Flake cited, Madison pregnantly asserts that “the interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” By “the place,” Madison means the branch of government of which a given politician is part. (In the context of Flake’s condemnation of Trump, the branches or “places” in question are the Senate and the presidency.) If Flake were truly following Madison’s constitutional advice, he would be trying to unify the entire Senate — Democrats and sympathetic Republicans — against Trump’s presidency.
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In such a scenario, the interest of “the man” — Flake — truly would be tied to the constitutional rights of “the place” — the Senate. Given Trump’s remarkably low standing with Republicans, which Sen. Lindsey Graham’s hints at impeachment have confirmed, Flake’s efforts would have more than a fighting chance. Moreover, the praise he would receive from both parties would be considerable. Flake’s ambition truly would be counteracting Trump’s.
Quitting the Senate after 2018 does not cure hyperpartisanship, strengthen the Senate nor weaken Trump. Rather, it leaves the floor open to more hyperpartisanship. Flake has diagnosed our political condition, yet has devised the wrong remedy. By rallying an anti-Trump coalition within the Senate instead, Flake would weaken — if not break — hyperpartisanship’s death grip on our government. He would invigorate the branch of government whose unique institutional powers — confirmation, treaties, and impeachment — render it most capable of thwarting a norm-eroding, demagogic president.
It is Flake’s duty to the Senate, Constitution and nation to capitalize on Trump’s lack of partisan support. If he is unable or unwilling to, another Senate Republican should.
Zug is a doctoral student in government at the University of Texas. He has written for the Claremont Review of Books.