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Sen. Jeff Flake at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
The man in the last row leaned back in his folding chair and crossed his arms. He was not pleased. “Sen. Flake is lucky he’s not up for reelection,” the man whispered. “He’s damn lucky. This is going to be a tough year. I mean, look at the momentum Donald Trump has!”
It was yet another 100-degree late-August Arizona morning, and Tom Purdon, a 78-year-old retired ob-gyn with a Band-Aid on his nose and leather loafers on his feet, had come to the East Social Center in Green Valley, just outside of Tucson, to see his senator, Jeff Flake, hold a town hall with the good people of the Grand Canyon State.
Purdon voted for Flake in 2012, the year the five-term congressman from Mesa graduated to the Senate. But recently Purdon has been regretting his decision. Elsewhere, Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, was preparing to rally 20,000 supporters in Mobile, Ala. Jeb Bush was dismissing the U.S.-born children of foreign citizens as “anchor babies.” And the rest of the GOP’s oxygen-deprived candidates were competing to say the most outlandish, attention-getting things their consultants could conjure up — about President Obama, about gay marriage, about our neighbors to the north.
Yet here was Flake, refusing to follow the script. In 2013, he joined the bipartisan Gang of Eight to craft a comprehensive reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Earlier this August, he was the only Republican accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry to Cuba to preside over the reopening of the U.S. embassy after a 54-year diplomatic freeze. But what has really worried Flake’s most conservative constituents is the Iran deal. When the GOP senators signed a letter to the leaders of Iran meant to undermine the White House’s ongoing nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, only seven members of their caucus declined to add their names — including Flake. The Arizonan vowed to consider the deal with an open mind, and for more than a month, even as every other Senate Republican came out against it and anti-Flake attack ads began airing on Arizona TV, that’s exactly what he did.
From front left, Gang of Eight Sens. Flake, Marco Rubio, Chuck Schumer and John McCain. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Eventually, on Aug. 15, Flake announced that he could not, in the end, bring himself to support Obama’s Iran pact. The decision made no one happy — not the president, who’d lost his last chance for bipartisan backing, and certainly not the Green Valley conservatives who were now listening to Flake insist, in some of his first public remarks on the subject, that it was “a much closer call than people want to make it out to be.”
Near the front of the room, a short bald man with a mustache, a yellow polo shirt, and a Brooklyn accent stood up and pointed at the senator.
“I’d like to know why Congress is allowing this president to capitulate to these terrorist states!” he shouted. “We elected you folks to stop him! You begged for our money and votes, you got elected, and now you let him do whatever he wants to do! I’d like to know why.”
“Well said!” Purdon cheered. “There’s a question!” Then he shifted in his seat and whispered again. “Everybody’s afraid of race,” he said. “That’s why.”
When the applause died down, Flake — who, at 52, with his ochre hair and quarterback’s jaw, looks more like an actor playing a senator than an actual senator — attempted to answer the man’s question. “I obviously have my differences with this president on domestic policy and foreign policy,” he said. “I have some agreement with him, too…”
“Why aren’t we getting our hostages back?” yelled the man in the yellow shirt. “Why aren’t we stopping this guy? You have the ability to do this!”
A chorus of “yeah!”s went up from the crowd.
“We’ve pushed back where we can,” Flake replied. He paused for a second. “And let me just say this. There are some who say that this president is trying to weaken America as a calculated effort…”
“Yes!” Purdon said to himself.
“… and I don’t buy that,” Flake continued. “I disagree.”
Purdon shook his head. A few minutes later, as he was filing out of the room, he delivered his verdict.
“Flake lost me when he stood up there and said he doesn’t believe this president is trying to weaken the United States,” he said. “In my opinion, that’s wrong as hell. I’m shocked.”
Purdon looked distraught. “Maybe I run with conservative friends,” he said. “But we all think Obama is the personification of evil.”
In early August, I saw a T-shirt at a Bernie Sanders rally that seemed to sum up the electorate’s prevailing mood, across the political spectrum.
“F— Politics,” it read. “Vote Bernie.”
This is the summer of our political discontent. Apparently, America is so disgusted with Washington that at least some voters on both sides of the aisle are looking for a bomb-throwing outsider — someone not named Bush or Clinton — to swoop in and blow the entire process to smithereens.
Enter Donald Trump, who has become the ultimate embodiment — the reductio ad absurdum — of this anti-establishment moment in American politics. (Unlike, say, Sanders, Trump is actually leading his party’s primary contest.) “Is Trump kind of a buffoon on stage at times?” Tom Purdon asked me rhetorically in Green Valley. “Sure he is. But he has scraped back the veneer and uncovered a lot of pent-up rage about what the hell is going on in this country.”
Purdon wasn’t complaining. But what if you’re the kind of Republican who doesn’t think that “scraping back the veneer” and “uncovering a lot of pent-up rage” is an effective approach to governance? What if you don’t consider it particularly conservative to overturn the 14th Amendment, or send drones to the Mexican border, or promise enormous levels of growth with no supporting evidence whatsoever? What if you recognize that running the United States is ultimately about working within the system, persuading the skeptics, and accepting difficult compromises?
Donald Trump signs autographs during the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Nashville. (Photo: Harrison McClary/REUTERS)
Right now, it’s hard to see that vision of the Republican Party in action, well, anywhere — except, perhaps, for Arizona, where Sen. Jeff Flake spent his August recess crisscrossing the state and insisting at every stop that it doesn’t have to be like this.
So, on a recent Thursday, I went to Arizona.
If there is such a thing in the GOP as the anti-Trump, Flake is it. Trump is an Easterner; Flake is a fifth-generation Arizonan. Trump was born and bred in big–city Queens, the son of a wealthy real-estate developer; Flake grew up on a cattle ranch in a small town founded by his ancestors (Snowflake, Ariz., pop. 5,576). Trump can’t ever recall asking God for forgiveness; Flake, an alumnus of Brigham Young University and a former missionary to South Africa, is as Mormon as they come. Trump is reflexively brutish and bombastic; Flake can be so soft-spoken that at times I had to strain to make out what he was saying. Trump rarely refers to his fellow candidates as anything but “idiots,” “losers” or “zeros.” Flake still believes that politics is “a noble profession” — a view that couldn’t be any less fashionable in 2015.
“By and large, I work with people who want to do good,” Flake told me. “I wish people could see. I wish they could sit in on some of these meetings — the ones marked ‘classified’ on the schedule, when nobody worries about cameras being around.”
For the better part of a day, Flake and I bounced from event to event in the back of an aide’s rented Ford Explorer. Coffee with local leaders at the Green Valley Senior Center. The town hall with Purdon & Co. just down the street. A meeting with Mayor Duane Blumberg of Sahuarita. A keynote address at the annual League of Cities and Towns conference. A tour of the local VA hospital. In between, we talked. I asked a lot of questions, but they all basically boiled down to one thing: What’s wrong with American politics — and what can be done to fix it?
Flake has some credibility on the subject. When he first arrived in Washington, the GOP was spending like crazy under President George W. Bush. The young congressman immediately set about trying to tame his own party’s extravagant ways. He regularly shamed earmark sponsors on the floor of the House; every Friday, he identified the most “egregious earmark of the week.”
“I ought to nominate some of my colleagues … for the Hall of Fame of Pork,” Flake said during one House debate in 2003. “But I am afraid they would fund it.”
Eventually, Flake’s efforts led to major rule changes, including new bans on anonymous pork-barrel spending and on earmarks designed to benefit for-profit corporations. In 2007, Citizens Against Government Waste named Flake the least profligate spender in Congress, and the American Conservative Union awarded him a 100 percent approval rating.
Flake takes cellphone photos of the retired Marines who presented the U.S. flag for the newly reopened embassy in Havana. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Along the way, Flake developed a reputation as a honest broker who was willing to go against the GOP grain on issues as diverse as Cuba, immigration and gay rights. (Flake has voted to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)
“Jeff is as straight a shooter as there exists in this place,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) when asked about Flake’s recent Iran deliberations. “I don’t know where Jeff will end up, but I know it will be because he’s made a decision on the merits, not the politics.”
Despite all that — and sometimes because of it — Flake hasn’t always been popular at home. He won his House races by wide margins, but barely edged out his Democratic Senate opponent Richard Carmona in 2012. Some Arizonans resent Flake’s decision not to retire from Congress after three terms, as he pledged to do in 2000. Some think the former mining lobbyist is too close to Arizona’s powerful copper industry. And in 2013, around the time that he revoked his support for a 2013 gun background-check bill over debunked concerns about private sales, Flake briefly held the lowest approval ratings in the country. Even today, more Arizonans (41 percent) disapprove of Flake’s job performance than approve (30 percent).
Still, he refuses to change course. (“That’s the beauty of being the Senate,” I heard him joke in Tucson. “Six years between elections.”) As the Explorer sped past the stately saguaros that line Interstate 19 , I asked the senator if he was happy with the 2016 GOP presidential contest so far.
“Well,” he said, trailing off as he tried to formulate a politic response … “No.” He let out a nervous laugh.
“I certainly hope that the current debate — a debate that isn’t very serious in my view, particularly on immigration — is over by next year,” he continued. “If it were to continue, I don’t think it would be good for the party at all. I don’t think it’s good for politics, either.”
“How about ‘anchor babies’?” I asked. “Do you worry about people like Jeb Bush using that term?”
“Yeah, I do,” Flake said. “The notion that we should try to parse out, ‘Well, you’re here because your parents came this way or that way’… No. Despite abuses on the margins, the 14th Amendment has served us well. Look at the European countries that don’t have it. Look at the bifurcation of some of those populations. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation. The vast majority of these immigrants are coming to America because they love their families.
“And what if the current ‘debate’ doesn’t end?” I asked. “What if Donald Trump wins the nomination?”
Flake sighed. “It would do tremendous damage to the Republican Party in terms of our relationship with Hispanics,” he said. “But it’s far beyond that. Because we’re a national party, people expect us to be a serious party. And if you can’t come up with serious policies, you don’t just turn off Hispanics — you turn off people in almost every demographic. Republicans have to be rational.”
In recent years, right-wingers such as Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio have made the most noise in Arizona. But Flake belongs to a different, and more deeply rooted, local tradition—a long line of independent-minded Arizona politicians who “have maneuvered to stick a finger in the eye of their party’s orthodoxy,” as journalist Cathleen Decker recently put it.
There is, of course, John McCain, Flake’s senior colleague in the Senate. There was also Rep. Morris “Mo” Udall, the one-eyed professional basketball player turned environmental champion who was frequently to the left of both his constituents and his party, and Rep. Sam Steiger, a onetime horse trader with a soft spot for red suspenders whose résumé included an overturned conviction for theft by extortion and the controversial shooting of two donkeys.
But above all there was the principled yet unpredictable Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 GOP presidential bid catalyzed the modern conservative movement, but who also favored Planned Parenthood, pushed Richard Nixon to resign, and supported gay rights long before it was a popular position with Democrats, let alone Republicans.
Sen. Barry Goldwater addresses his supporters in Washington, 1964. (Photo: AP)
Flake once served as executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank, and today he considers himself a Goldwater Republican — though one with a slightly more polite approach than his feisty predecessor, thanks, at least in part, to his rural Mormon upbringing.
“The tone and tenor of my faith is different, and it has taught me that you ought to be understanding in politics,” Flake told me, hinting at how Mormons responded to the challenges of migration and persecution by developing “the ability to change skins, to fit in, to be liked and to be likable, even … to be moderate,” in the words of historian Daniel J. Herman. “But is Barry Goldwater a hero of mine? You bet. Always has been. His conservative principles. His willingness to go against the grain. To reach across the aisle. To be on his own. That fierce Western independence.”
During the day I spent in Arizona, Flake repeatedly tried to show that sort of independence — even if his constituents would have preferred a little more partisanship.
(“The grown-up in the room,” an aide told me. “That’s how the senator sees himself.”)
Near the end of a rush-hour radio interview on “Wake Up Tucson!,” a caller named Kate challenged Flake’s position on Cuba.
“George W. Bush called Cuba part of the axis of evil,” Kate said. “Now Obama is trying to undo that.”
Flake gently challenged her. “Well, I don’t think Cuba was ever on anybody’s list as far as the axis of evil,” he replied. Then he explained why he has supported ending the embargo for more than a decade — long before Obama publicly adopted the same position.
A little later, at the Green Valley Senior Center, a group of administrators and activists lobbied for more funding from Washington. Instead, Flake pivoted to entitlement reform — every nursing home’s least favorite subject.
“We know where most of the money is going: Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid,” he said. “We’ve got to take a serious look at it.”
Someone asked whether Congress understood the cost-saving potential of preventive medicine.
Flake, left, and Sen. Bob Corker, standing center, at a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
“Yes,” Flake said. “But more and more, just look at the raw numbers of where we are. Social Security is the easier fix. But with Medicare, the average couple puts in about $130,000 over their lifetime and draws out about $350,000. We’ve got to find a way to deal with that. There are 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day.”
No issue, however, inspired as much blowback as Iran. For the past month, Flake had been mulling the long-term implications of the deal, lobbying the White House for congressional approval, and consulting with Obama’s Iran team — Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, not to mention the president himself — as he struggled to make a decision. But at nearly every stop, befuddled Arizonans asked the same question — What the heck took you so long? — as if Flake’s caution had somehow been irresponsible, even freakish.
Each time, the senator would patiently explain his thought process: that while the agreement, in his view, would successfully curb Iran’s nuclear activities, it wouldn’t leave Congress enough leeway to punish Tehran for continuing to make non-nuclear mischief in the Middle East.
“But there’s no easy solution here,” Flake would add. “It’s never good to be on the other side of our allies. The alternatives if this deal goes down aren’t good, either. And for those who say they would rip it up on their first day as president” — like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz — “well, that’s just not a responsible approach.”
For Flake, the Iran brouhaha represents everything that’s wrong with Washington right now. When we returned to his SUV after the League of Cities and Towns luncheon, the senator slipped off his charcoal suit jacket — the temperature was now approaching 105 degrees — and began to vent.
“We’re moving toward an Obamacare dynamic on foreign policy,” he told me. “Just a purely partisan vote where part of the country is cheering for failure. That’s not the way to conduct foreign policy. It’s always been separate.”
Flake insisted that Obama could have convinced the Senate to ratify a treaty, and he chided the president for choosing to pursue an executive agreement instead. “[Obama] basically said, ‘If you’re against this thing, then you’re making common cause with the hardliners in Iran,’” Flake recalled. “That doesn’t help.”
Flake may actually believe that the president could have maneuvered a treaty through the Senate. (He cited the ratification of the New START Treaty in 2010 as a recent example of how the system should work.) Or he may just be making a convenient retrospective argument — a counterfactual that can’t be disproved. Either way, he admits that he can “understand the administration’s frustration” with Republican stonewalling. “I think on the Iran deal what was difficult was the reaction of just, ‘This is Obama, so it can’t be good,’” he told me. “It’s tough to get people beyond that.”
Part of the problem, according to Flake, is how voters — and his fellow conservatives in particular — are getting their news these days.
“To hear some of the calls that come into my office or the people who approach me at the gym, you just want to tell them, ‘Please, turn the channel! Get exposed to something else!’” he said. “I had a call from somebody who said, ‘I would be OK with this deal as long as we shared a couple of nukes with Israel, so they had the ability to respond. If they had that, I’d be fine.’ And I said, “Well, they’ve already kind got a boatload.’”
Flake chuckled. “But that was gleaned from some commentator who just doesn’t get it,” he continued. “And it’s really the case on just about every issue now. People are only exposed to what they already agree with. It really has led to more polarization than we had before.”
Flake arriving at the Senate Republicans’ policy luncheon earlier this year. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
The solution, according to Flake, is a Congress that actually functions —something that America hasn’t had for more than eight years. In 2013, Flake and his fellow Gang of Eight members tried to lead by example on immigration, meeting “almost every night” for seven months, hashing out compromises, amending their bill dozens and dozens of times, and only then moving it to the floor. But “that’s just very, very infrequent now,” Flake told me. “And it’s unfortunate.”
Instead, almost no legislation comes to the floor of the Senate. Because of that—and because, as Flake put it, “we’re quickly coming to a point where a majority of the Senate has never even experienced regular order” — “we have people who think you can defund Obamacare on an appropriations bill. Who think the only leverage you have is to shut down the government, like Ted Cruz. Who try to legislate by cable news.”
Flake doesn’t deny that Americans are angry right now. But for him, “F— Politics” isn’t the answer (and not just because this Mormon doesn’t swear). As we drove away from Tucson’s impressive VA hospital — the last stop of the day— he sounded optimistic about the future. Other than the power of his own example, which is fairly minimal, Flake can’t offer any real cures for what ails Washington at this peculiar moment in American history. He’s a man out of time in his party, at least for now.
Yet there is something poignant about Flake’s commitment to the political process — to the kind of old-school, pre-Fox News politicking that Goldwater and his ilk once mastered. Flake is still convinced that comprehensive immigration reform “makes the most sense” — and that his Gang of Eight colleague Marco Rubio, who ran away from the bill after it failed in the House, would “have been better off had he embraced it and simply said, ‘That’s the way it had to be.’” He’s hoping that Congress can hash out a Grand Bargain on the budget sometime soon, even though he doubts it will happen while Obama is still president, or with a divided government. He advised his fellow Republicans to back down on same-sex marriage, regardless of their personal views. (Flake twice voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment and remains personally opposed for religious reasons.)
“My nephew is married to a man,” Flake told me, confirming that his son Ryan has also lobbied him on the issue. “Just about every family has experienced this. It was inevitable that it was going to come, and I think that it has. So given what the Supreme Court has said, it’s settled. Let’s move ahead.”
I pointed out that all of this puts Flake at odds with a GOP gripped by Trumpmania. But Flake is fine with that.
“Early on, I was invited to play basketball with the president,” Flake recalled before we said our goodbyes. “Tim Geithner was there, Arne Duncan. [It was] kind of the Cabinet versus 10 members of Congress. CNN had reported that day on who was invited to play with the president. So I was getting dressed to go out on the court, and suddenly my cellphone rings. I didn’t recognize the number, but I took it anyway. The Capitol switchboard had patched this woman through for some reason, probably because she was hysterical. She was crying. And she implored, “’Don’t play basketball with that man!’”
Flake laughed. “It was just, ‘Don’t associate, don’t do anything with him,’” he explained. He shook his head one last time. “So I said, ‘Get a life!’”
Then-Rep. Jeff Flake, with his wife, Cheryl, during an election night party in 2012. (Photo: Matt York/AP)