Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., single-handedly paused Judge Brett M. Kavanaughâ€™s controversial Supreme Court nomination when he struck a last-minute deal Friday between Republicans who wanted to push it through, Democrats who wanted an FBI investigation into sexual misconduct claims against Kavanaugh and a handful of senators like Flake who werenâ€™t sure what to do. Because of Flake, the FBI will investigate the allegations for a week, then the Senate will vote, likely with Flakeâ€™s approval, on confirming Kavanaugh.
It was a bold move that will help define Flakeâ€™s career. But, Flake said Sunday, it could only happen because his career in the Senate is ending. And thatâ€™s a striking thing to hear from the senator who forged a compromise on one of the most divisive Supreme Court nominations of our time. Compromise of this scale, Flake said, is essentially dead.
Or at least, itâ€™s dead to anyone in Congress who has to run in a competitive reelection. Hereâ€™s what he told CBSâ€™s Scott Pelley in an interview for â€ś60 Minutesâ€ť that aired Sunday:
â€śPelley: Senator Flake, youâ€™ve announced that youâ€™re not running for re-election and I wonder, could you have done this, if you were running for re-election?
â€śFlake: No, not a chance.
â€śPelley: Not a chance?
â€śFlake: No, no.
â€śPelley: Because politics has become too sharp, too partisan?
â€śFlake: Thereâ€™s no value to reaching across the aisle. Thereâ€™s no currency for that anymore. Thereâ€™s no incentive.â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s no currency [for compromise] anymore;â€ť â€śThereâ€™s no value to reaching across the aisle.â€ť
Thereâ€™s no nuance in what Flakeâ€™s saying: That there is no political reward for Republican lawmakers to work with Democrats, or Democratic lawmakers to work with Republicans. Flake is a reliably conservative member of Congress, and yet he told Pelley there are demonstrations outside his home from conservatives protesting how heâ€™s held up Kavanaughâ€™s nomination.
â€śItâ€™s this whole tribal nature of politics that becomes shirts and skins,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s us-versus-them. Thereâ€™s no room for compromise or doubt.â€ť
Lawmakers in competitive reelection campaigns once might have been the likeliest ones to compromise because they wanted to win over some of the other partyâ€™s voters. But in this era, theyâ€™d be called out and maybe even abandoned by their base for it. Weâ€™ve seen how Republican senators who criticized Trump have had their approval ratings suddenly drop back in their home states.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who represent constituencies on the far left or far right have no incentive to upset their entrenched voters by working with the other side, lest there be protests outside their homes, too.
The backlash against Flake comes even though he is retiring at the end of this year, having seen the writing on the wall about what being a critic of President Donald Trump meant for him in Arizona. He was concerned he wouldnâ€™t have enough support to win a competitive primary. So he decided to instead retire from his seat and embrace his role as one of Trumpâ€™s main GOP antagonists.
That was about a year ago. Since then, Flake has given multiple speeches denouncing aspects of Trump and Trumpism. But Fridayâ€™s decision to hold his vote for Kavanaugh until there was an FBI investigation marked one of his first concrete actions to stop Trumpâ€™s agenda. But he said he never would have gotten up and tapped his buddy, Sen. Christopher A. Coons, D-Del., on the shoulder to reach this deal if he had to face voters next month.
Thatâ€™s not to say Flake is entirely free of consequences. Should Flake ever run for president, say as a challenger to Trump in 2020, this is not something Trumpâ€™s base of the Republican Party is likely to forget.
Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix.