Early Returns

Jeff Flake Picked the Right Fight

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.

Choose wisely.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I keep hearing from smart people such as Ezra Klein and Ross Douthat that Arizona Republican Jeff Flake made a critical mistake: Instead of blasting Donald Trump and announcing his retirement from the Senate, he should have run for re-election on an anti-Trump platform. Klein: "Flake is sending the worst possible message to his colleagues, empowering the president he loathes, and accelerating the takeover of the Republican Party that he laments."

I understand the impulse. Mainstream conservative Republicans (and Flake isn't really mainstream; he's one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate) really do need to find ways to fight back against Trump, and against the radical faction of the Republican Party that took over the party long ago. 

But Flake's decision to drop out of his 2018 re-election battle was probably the best one for his cause.

Remember, Flake (unlike Bob Corker) didn't wait until announcing his retirement to attack Trump. Not only did he avoid any reconciliation during the presidential campaign last year, but he has also been a solid critic all year, eventually writing an anti-Trump book. The result, unfortunately for Flake, was that he fell far behind radical Republican Kelli Ward in public polling, something that no doubt he was seeing in any surveys he commissioned as well. The even bigger problem for Flake is he just never became very popular in Arizona, perhaps because he has taken strongly pro-immigration and pro-trade positions. Or perhaps it was for other reasons. Either way, he was in big trouble. 

Had he run, he was risking a major setback for anti-Trump Republicans. It's one thing to bow out when the polls look bad, but the message sent to other politicians if he lost a primary to a seemingly weak challenger would have been terrible -- it would have signaled that Trump, radical Republicans and Steve Bannon-style Republicans were firmly in command of the party. Now that Flake is out, it's likely that someone from the relatively sensible wing of the party will wind up running and winning the primary, in which case the message sent to the party will be that Bannon, at least (since he's already endorsed Ward), is an empty shirt. Or, if Ward wins anyway, she won't have defeated a prominent anti-Trump senator. Every Republican politician in Washington remembers Bob Bennett, Dick Lugar and Eric Cantor, all incumbents who lost to Tea Party challengers. Those who retired before being defeated are mostly forgotten. 

What's more, Flake can -- if he chooses to -- use the rest of his term to actually fight what's gone wrong with the Republican Party. In fact, he's already done so by condemning Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Imagine, however, that Flake was still running for re-election as an anti-Trump candidate. His decision to get involved in the Alabama contest would have been much more complicated. It's true that tolerance for people such as Moore is one of the problems with the Republican Party. But Moore is also popular with many Christian conservatives, voters Flake would need in his primary election. In an electoral context, Flake would have been diluting his anti-Trump message and courting an even more devastating defeat by speaking up. Freed from that context, Flake was able to speak out, and did. 

Yes, sensible Republicans certainly do need to pick some fights with the Trumpists and radicals if they're ever going to defeat them. No doubt that includes some they may lose. But every smart political movement needs to pick its fights carefully. I strongly suspect Flake made the right choice. 

1. Molly Reynolds at the Monkey Cage on the broken budget process and what it's now used to do.

2. Michael J. Malbin at Brookings on all those well-funded Democratic 2018 House candidates

3. Dan Drezner on the new, and dangerous, China model

4. Matt O'Brien has some advice for Janet Yellen

5. Fred Kaplan with what's wrong with John Kelly

6. My Bloomberg View colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on the Trump dossier

7. Elizabeth Drew argues that Trump has become a very weak president. Welcome to the club! Some political scientists (such as myself and Matt Glassman) have been saying this all year. Not complaining; it's good if this becomes conventional wisdom. One very important caveat: Yes, Trump is weak, but that doesn't mean those who warned about his autocratic tendencies were wrong, or that the threat has passed. Presidents who can't achieve influence through lawful and constitutional means are tempted to try to work around the law, and even if they are stopped, they can do plenty of damage along the way. 

8. And Kevin Drum says the robots are coming and the politicians should start thinking about how to deal with it. 

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

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    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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