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click to enlarge Senator Jeff Flake

Senator Jeff Flake

Conscience of a Conservative

Extremism in the pursuit of basic decency is no vice

Sen. Jeff Flake set off a political explosion last week with his announcement that he would not seek reelection. On the Senate floor, Flake delivered a scorching speech going after President Donald Trump. Among the highlights:

"We must never regard as 'normal' the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country—the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve."

"Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as 'telling it like it is,' when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified."

"It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, 'Why didn't you do something? Why didn't you speak up?' What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes normal. With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that."

"When a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country and instead of addressing it goes looking for somebody to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a pluralistic society. Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to first look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly and debased appetites in us."

There's plenty more where that came from in Flake's speech. He made it clear that his conscience simply wouldn't allow him to shut his mouth about the horror show that the Trump administration has become.

It's not as if Flake is opposed to Trump on many policy matters. He's voted in support of the Affordable Care Act repeal, the gigantic tax cut for upper-income Americans, allowing states to withhold funding for Planned Parenthood and plenty of other controversial bits of legislation.

But Flake has been plenty critical of Trump, both to his face and in the pages of a book he published earlier this year. He just believes that the coarsening of our politics is destructive to our nation—and he's right about that.

Some critics complain that Flake should have stood and fought for his Senate seat instead of announcing his retirement. But he can read a poll as well as anyone else—and it was obvious that Flake was losing ground to former state lawmaker Kelli Ward, a Trump-loving Republican who got clobbered by John McCain in last year's GOP primary but built up her political machine to be in position to take on Flake next year. If Flake believed that staying in the race meant that Ward would be going to the Senate, it makes perfect sense for him to step aside in the hope that another candidate could step into the race and block Ward.

And speaking of candidates who could step into the race: Southern Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally has a big decision to make (and it's entirely possible she'll make that decision between the time our paper heads to the printer and when it hits the streets). Does she stick with a tough race in Congressional District 2 or does she make the jump to a tough race for the Senate?

From what we hear, McSally's poll numbers have been plummeting in CD2, which is one of the most competitive in the nation. She herself acknowledged in an address to bankers earlier this year that the voters' animosity toward Trump would lead to a loss, and the numbers are growing worse, as far as the generic ballot goes; at 538.com, the running average of polls showed that voters preferred to vote for a Democrat over a Republican by a 10-point margin. While that doesn't mean McSally would be toast, it does suggest that (depending on who comes out of the Democratic primary) she would have a tough race on her hands.

While McSally has been much more circumspect about Trump than Flake has been, she has said enough to have some conservatives deeply suspicious of her. She declined to endorse Trump, said she wouldn't reveal if she were voting for him and described the Access Hollywood tape—the one where Trump bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy"—as "disgusting."

As a result, some major conservative groups—the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund —are calling for McSally to stay out of the race.

It's a little absurd—after all, McSally has been more likely than any member of the Arizona delegation to support Trump's agenda, voting with him 96 percent of time, according to 538.com's tracker. And when you get right down to it, McSally has served her country and led an A-10 squadron, while Ward has made her political bones by swerving as far to the right as she can, even giving credence to the chemtrail wackos.

But that's where many Republican voters are these days. Even someone with McSally's record may not be able to pass their purity test.

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