Jeff Flake Assesses Future of Conservatism as 2020 Kemp Lecturer

Jim Tranquada

Speaking on the day the Senate voted to acquit President Donald Trump in his historic impeachment trial, former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake expressed deep concern about the future of the Republican Party as Occidental College’s 2020 Jack Kemp ’57 Distinguished Lecturer.

A loss at the polls in November would lead Republicans to engage in a much-needed re-examination of the party’s current direction, predicted Flake, who represented Arizona for 18 years in the House and Senate before deciding not to run for re-election in 2018.

“If the president wins, it’s difficult to see how that will happen,” he told moderator Grant Woods ’76 before a large audience of students, faculty and alumni in Thorne Hall. “Not much in Washington is driven by philosophy or principle now. We may have a cult of personality in a way … On core big issues that the president defines as important and rallies the base on, if you are contrary on those, you will have a hard time.”

It’s possible to make a principled argument against impeachment, as some of his former Senate colleagues did this week, he added. “What you can’t do is claim that the president did no wrong. [What he did] wasn’t just inappropriate, it was wrong.”

In response to a question from Woods, the former two-time attorney general of Arizona, Flake said that while surprised at how quickly Trump presidency has transformed the Republican Party, the hyperpartisan outlook it has embraced is not new.

When Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman who was the target of a near-fatal assassination attempt in 2011, returned to the House the following year for President Obama’s State of the Union address, Flake sat next to her.

“Gabby wasn’t well enough to stand alone, and she wanted to stand for the president’s applause lines, so I helped her up,” Flake recalled. “That left me a lone Republican standing up in the midst of all these Democrats. … Within hours, I got hundreds of emails and texts asking, ‘Why are you consorting to with the enemy? Do you agree with Obama?’”

Flake said he agreed with Trump’s positions on such traditional conservative issues as tax cuts, support for the military and reducing federal regulations. But the president’s embrace of authoritarian leaders, the imposition of tariffs, his denigration of allies and his demonization of immigrants represent populism, not conservatism, and “will have long-lasting consequences,” he said.

To support the president, “I would have had to denounce policies I believe in and condone behavior I simply couldn’t condone,” he continued. “I would have to stand on campaign stage with the president, and be forced to look at my feet while he was ridiculing my colleagues or minorities. I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it.”

In response to another question from Woods, Flake described his role in the 2018 confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was marked by a dramatic confrontation between Flake and two sexual assault survivors broadcast live on television.

That confrontation did play a role in his subsequent approach to the hearings, in which he successfully pushed for a supplemental, week-long FBI investigation into the allegations of sexual assault made by Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, Flake said. “But it was more than that—I had heard for a week from survivors from my extended family and my friends.”

The FBI investigation should have been longer, “but it was significant,” he said. “I think the country would feel a lot better about where the Senate ended up if they were able to read that FBI report.” In his own deliberations, he said he tried to weigh both principle and precedent. “I was leaving [the Senate] in three months, and it would have given me no small pleasure in denying [the president] a Supreme Court nominee, but I didn’t think that was right.”

Although Ford offered what he called “compelling” testimony, Flake said he ultimately balked at setting what he regarded as a bad precedent: “that an allegation, no matter how old or uncorroborated, would be enough in itself to disqualify a candidate.”

The Jack Kemp ‘57 Distinguished Lecture Series, made possible by the Jack Kemp ‘57 Scholars Endowment, strives to engage Occidental students and faculty in dialogue on important issues of public policy such as the political economy, economic growth in the context of a market system, communitarian values and bipartisan relations.

Previous Kemp Distinguished Lecturers include Tal Becker, one of Israel’s top peace negotiators and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem; former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; and journalist, political commentator and Kemp biographer Morton Kondracke.