Point Austin: A Turning Point?

Flake, Corker, and Straus ... does the new GOP have room for decency?

Point Austin: A Turning Point?

A couple more Republican dominoes have fallen. This week provided the final apostasy of Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who announced he would not run for re-election while roundly denouncing President Donald Trump in words first used by Attorney Joseph Welch to excoriate Sen. Joseph McCarthy: "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

Flake's declaration was echoed in Texas by that of Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, who (in his much milder way) also said he won't run again for the House, otherwise leaving his options open. While not directly criticizing any of his GOP colleagues, he said he would now feel freer to define his own priorities, and work for unity rather than division. "I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down." (Nothing here of his policy battles with Lite Guv Dan Patrick, or his description of Gov. Greg Abbott's 2017 special-session agenda as "a room full of horse manure." That's already been shoveled away.)

Flake's departure was preceded by that of Tennessee Sen. Bob Cork­er, openly feuding with Trump and now dismissing him as a liar, only because the president is indeed pathologically dishonest. A few other Repub­licans – John McCain, George W. Bush – have taken shots at Trump, but thus far the dustups have done little to change the political dynamic. A headline in Wednes­day's New York Times captures the GOP's predicament: "Tax Cuts Are the Glue Hold­ing a Fractured Repub­lic­an Party Together." For the contemporary GOP, no "principle" is more important than cutting taxes for the corporate rich.

Plenty of Regrets

More than one observer has already pointed out that both Flake and Corker faced tough roads for re-election, with primary opponents in the Trumpian mode making "principled conservatism" even more of an anachronism than prior to last November. Flake in particular is no "moderate." He's a Barry Goldwater acolyte, having helmed the Goldwater Institute and most recently borrowed Goldwater's title for his own book, Conscience of a Conservative. Noticed primarily for its criticisms of Trump, the book is a dotty, true-believing libertarian (and tax-cutting) monograph, bristling with wide-eyed sanctimony from its opening line: "I will start by saying I regret having to write this book." But Flake is also an adamant free-trader and pro-immigration – GOP orthodoxies until quite recently – so he no longer fits in the new Trumpian political universe.

Flake struck the same note ("I rise today with no small measure of regret") in his Tuesday Senate speech. Still, it was impossible to quarrel with his anti-Trump litany (while never mentioning Voldemort's name): "Regret because of the state of our disunion. Regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership." And Flake repeated the now commonplace warning against accepting Trump's reckless and malevolent behavior as "normal." "We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. ... The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency."

Dim Prospects

Plenty of other people, neither so lofty nor so Republican, have been saying such things for months. (Indeed, even Ted Cruz issued a similar jeremiad against Trump just before the Indiana primary – then climbed aboard the Trump train, in fear of being left at the also-ran station.) The fact that the denunciations are now emanating loudly from within the GOP would be more comfort if they were accompanied by some actual moves to dethrone the naked emperor. But big GOP donors (especially presidential donors) want tax cuts – and the perennial demand for tax cuts overshadows piddling concerns like an amoral and irresponsible president, the destruction of longstanding political norms, and even the terrifying prospect of nuclear war.

Will Flake's sudden defection become a turning point? We might like to think so, but if the Trump presidency has demonstrated anything, it's that Trump's moral, political, and intellectual offenses have occurred largely without substantive consequences. The stunned reporting continues, the outraged op-eds accumulate, the late-night comedians take their mordant shots, and now, the Republican bystanders finally screw up their courage and declare, "Enough is enough." Trump buries it all in another vengeful, irrational tweetstorm – to the welcome of his hard-right base – and the entire cycle repeats.

In that context, it's difficult to find much reason for optimism. While we reflexively cringe at Trump's ignorance and recklessness, the relentless dismantling of the EPA, the State Department, HUD, Health and Human Services, Education, Interior ... all proceeds with little effective opposition. Beside Trump stands Flake's admired colleague Mike Pence, eager to continue the destruction, with less fanfare. Here in Texas, Straus' abdication leaves Abbott and Patrick in charge. From the White House on down, Trumpian madness looks increasingly like the "new normal."

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Joe Straus, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker

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