Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is the man of the moment.
Yesterday, he gave the speech many in America’s anti-Trump majority seem to have been longing to hear from an elected Republican.
The executive director of CNN’s political programming, Mark Preston, responded in a series of tweets that while there have been many speeches delivered in the U.S. Congress, Flake’s “will go down as one of the most historic” and that it “should be watched by every high school civics, history, and politics class tomorrow.” CNN’s Chris Cillizza, arguably the single most representative weather vane of Washington, D.C., conventional wisdom, was perhaps even more ebullient, writing in an article that “Flake’s address was a clarion call to the governing wing of the Republican Party to wake up from the fever of Trumpism,” adding that the speech was “in short, the most important political speech of 2017.”
Benjamin Wittes, a vehemently anti-Trump friend of James Comey ensconced as a senior fellow at the centrist Brookings Institute, wrote a piece titled “The Senate Was Touched by Greatness Today: In Praise of Jeff Flake.”
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Or maybe you think Flake shares the moment with another Republican who has recently unveiled a plan to retire, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.
After we get past analyzing the implications for the Senate races in 2018 and whether Flake and Corker should get adjunct depictions at Mount Rushmore, let’s slow down and return to first principles. In other words, let’s follow the money.
We should not confuse words with resistance. While both senators have now spoken out against Trump’s behavior in no uncertain terms, neither has taken a single notable concrete action to curtail Trump’s power or fight back against his corruption. Unlike some fellow Republican Senators, neither Flake nor Corker have acted to attempt to shield Robert Mueller’s investigation from potential presidential meddling.
And what far too few people seem to note is that both imminent retirees stand to profit from their high-minded rhetoric. It’s an extremely good bet, for example, that the speaking fees retiring Senators Flake and Corker receive when they leave the Senate via early retirement are skyrocketing because of their high profile, non-ideological, and non-legislative spats with Trump.
If you work at Blackstone or KKR or Carlyle or some other private equity fund, expect to hear a refined and more polished version of Flake’s speech in 2019.
If you go to the Aspen Institute in 2019 or wherever else elites meet to exchange easy congratulations, plan to hug (or whatever serious elites do upon meeting one another) Corker and Flake.
What will the Flake and Corker road shows look like?
I expect that they will explain how they came to have key insights about “courage,” “leadership,” and “conviction” while trying to stem the tide of Trumpist no-nothingism. Their speeches may share some previously unpublished jokes at Trump’s expense and describe just what it is like to talk one-on-one with our country’s most ignorant and abnormal president during or after having a spat with the man.
And to be clear, I have been known to laugh at Trump-related derision. Some of their anecdotes might be genuinely, albeit morbidly, interesting. I just prefer my humor and candor from people connected to meaningful #Resistance.
As of now, however, there is little reason to think a future Flake or Corker speech will recount any acts of actual oversight of the Trump administration.
It is crushingly depressing that we are debating Trump’s tax cut plan without Trump having fulfilled his promise to release his tax returns. What are Corker and Flake doing to force Trump’s tax returns to become public? Nothing, though Congress has options to do so forcibly.
Likewise, Flake and Corker ought to support efforts to address what seems to be Trump’s attempts to get around the advice and consent obligations within the U.S. Constitution. Should a so-called defender of America’s greatness be upset that the acting comptroller of the currency may hold his job illegally? Or that other corporate cronies are exercising questionable-at-best authority at the EPA and elsewhere across the administration?
Nonetheless, members of both political parties have offered Flake and Corker praise for simply speaking out. Voluminous and unconditional praise for words alone make actions less likely as it confirms to both of them that bipartisan bona fides can be earned by a speech (or some funny tweets) alone.
As such, there’s no cause for Flake and Corker to anger their Republican allies in the Senate, to show them up by outshining them in commitment to oversight. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and company surely do not want to see Flake and Corker push hard for oversight, but McConnell has no obvious discomfort in offering Flake high praise for his substanceless speech.
In fact, if Flake and Corker want to be able to informally lobby former colleagues like McConnell for cold hard cash in the future, angering them is ill-advised. So why pursue oversight? Flake and Corker have been taught that they can attain the status of famous heroic statesman with showy rhetoric, all while doing nothing that would actually cause reliable Trump allies to distance themselves.
If you want real bipartisan oversight, wait to embrace Republicans who provide it.
Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are making names for themselves, as well as a lot of easy money. They will be on your TV and on the corporate speaking circuit for the next decade or more. Books will be written; Flake has already penned one.
Bipartisan encomiums will be distributed.
And unless and until Flake and Corker take anti-corruption actions consistent with their ideology and stated idealism, we should be wholly cynical about their “sacrifice.”
Reward actions, not speeches.