Jeff Flake is not a hero, despite what he wants you to think

It's easy to fight the president when you don't have to worry about your (18 percent) approval rating anymore.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., listens as attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., listens as attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, before the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Things, as they say, fall apart. The center (or what passes for it in the Trump era) isn’t holding — not if Steve Bannon has anything to do with it.

The day Bannon left the White House, he declared war. In the battle for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ)’s seat, Bannon was finally able to declare victory on Tuesday. Last Wednesday, the former White House chief strategist backed Flake’s primary opponent, Kelli Ward. Flake was already considered one of the most endangered incumbents, and on Tuesday afternoon, he gave up the gun.

“There may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party,” Flake told The Arizona Republic ahead of his official announcement, which came just minutes after a Senate GOP lunch with President Trump, where Flake reportedly did not inform the president of his retirement plans.

Minutes after the luncheon ended, Flake took to the Senate floor, where he confirmed that he will not run for re-election, spoke at length about his retirement, and took several swings at Trump.

“We must never regard as normal the casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals,” Flake said. “We must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal… Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is.”

Flake’s voice shook with emotion for much of the speech.

“When the next generation asks, ‘What did you do to stop this?’ what will we say?” Flake asked.

Well, Flake’s answer will be that he got out of the way, clearing the path for Arizona state Sen. Kelli Ward (R-AZ), a “conservative champion” who’s running on building the wall and once held a town hall about chemtrails. She will now march toward the Republican nomination armed with Breitbart firepower.

“I will not be complicit or silent,” Flake said Tuesday.

Those words are nice on paper, but Flake forgets that being a United States senator is an incredibly powerful position, and one of the only jobs in which basically everyone will listen to what you have to say.

Flake’s new strategy seems to be that he just isn’t going to do that anymore.

Flake has a history of pushing back against Trump — a history which he defended during an interview with CNN following his floor speech.

“I didn’t support him in the campaign. I was troubled initially, years ago, by his birtherism. I thought that that was an ugly conspiracy theory to foist on our previous president,” Flake said. “That was very unbecoming of anybody to put that forward.”

But, Flake admitted, he “never considered [himself] a never-Trumper.”

He certainly didn’t vote like one, voting in line with Trump’s position 91.7 percent of the time.

And his speech Tuesday was much stronger than his earlier critiques of the president, because calling out the president’s lying and general recklessness when you’re announcing your retirement is easy.

Flake now joins Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Bob Corker (R-TN) in the boat of soon-to-be-retired senators who have nothing to lose. Since McCain and Corker announced their own retirements, McCain has killed two ACA repeal bills, and Corker has been publicly feuding with Trump.

Flake, who will serve until the end of his term in January 2019, is now free to spend the rest of his term doing the same without worrying about what will happen to his approval rating. (Although, with an 18 percent approval rating, there’s not much that could happen anyway.)

At any rate, Flake’s speech Tuesday could be a sign of how he plans to spend the rest of his term. If he’s really intent on fighting Trump, he could certainly be a thorn in the side of Senate leadership as they look to pass tax reform and piece together the rest of the Trump agenda.

But don’t let him fool you into thinking this is the brave, stand-up way to go.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders actually said it straight Tuesday when she was asked about Flake’s announcement.

“I think,” she said, “based on previous statements and certainly based on the lack of support that he has from the people of Arizona, it’s probably a good move.”