This week Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona walked to the floor of the world's most august, deliberative body, the United States Senate, and ridiculed the leader of his own party — the president of the United States.
Flake's words were striking: "We must stop pretending that the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused as telling it like it is when it is actually reckless, outrageous and undignified."
His verbal indictment follows a war of words from former Trump supporter and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker previously called the White House an "adult day care center" and this week described Trump's rhetoric as more of the "same untruths from an utterly untruthful president." He underscored the sentiment with the hashtag #AlertTheDaycareStaff.
Both Flake and Corker have announced they will not seek re-election, and they are unbound from the shackles of campaign politics. The reason why both are not running again is as important as their commentary. Flake for sure, and Corker most likely, would have had a difficult task getting re-elected in the Trumpian world of Republican politics. Both men are traditional Republicans. They believe in less spending, less government, free trade, sensible immigration and a robust foreign policy. As Flake has described, that is a narrow path to electoral victory in today's Republican Party.
Trump is remaking the Republican Party into something very different. As I have previously written, he is transforming the GOP into more of a workers' party. He is for big government ensuring Medicare and Social Security will not change even though those programs will bankrupt America if not reformed. He wants to spend big on infrastructure. He is a protectionist who jettisoned America from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement and is looking to substantially renegotiate other free trade agreements like NAFTA. Trump also could not be more different in tone and demeanor — he is an equal opportunity pugilist, willing to fight friend and foe over issues big and small. Corker and Flake are soft-spoken pragmatists. In a world of boiling-over public sentiment, where volume of speech is given more weight than content, they are isolated.
What is going on?
Americans are beyond frustrated with a federal government that cannot get anything done. Republicans are particularly irate. A Republican-controlled White House, Senate and House have failed to enact or repeal a major piece of legislation. They could not even muster a simple majority in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
That anger is directed at incumbents. Flake and Corker are the victims of it, and so is the president whose approval rating is lower than any modern American president in his first year in office, hovering around 39 percent. For comparison, Nixon's approval rating at the height of the Watergate scandal was 36 percent. The base of the party is even angrier. They want change, but the very people likely to enact change — those willing to walk across the aisle and find common ground with the other side — are the same members of Congress who are leaving.
The war of words between Republicans only makes things worse. Witness the health care vote, where Sen. John McCain voted to oppose the repeal-and-replace measure at the eleventh hour. Is there any doubt that Trump's caustic attacks on McCain as a POW ("I like people who weren't captured") impacted his decision to vote against the president's most important campaign promise?
Trump will need Corker and Flake to pass tax reform. Sponsoring Republicans to challenge incumbents is worse still. Extreme candidates ran and won in Republican primaries in 2010, then lost their general election races to centrist Democrats.
Republicans have one last chance to get it right. The president and members of the Senate need to stop firing at each other inside the tent and work together to get something done. Passing meaningful tax reform will further stimulate the economy and would improve the public's perception of the governing party. If Republicans fail to act, they may get efficient government in another form — a Democratically controlled Congress and White House.
George LeMieux served as a Republican U.S. senator, governor's chief of staff and deputy attorney general.