OPINION — Even before Arizona Senator Jeff Flake finished his floor speech announcing his retirement and why he is retiring, opinions already were flying. Donald Trump and Steve Bannon saw Flake’s speech as a sign of victory. Hugh Hewitt dismissed it as a Hail Mary, Flake’s only political option in a losing reelection campaign. Ross Douthat called Flake’s retirement speech “defiant surrender.” Social scientists tell us there is simply no voter appetite these days for the conservatism Flake represents. And, in a typical non sequitur of thought, the New York Times editorial board thinks all of it is simply an assault on the Obama agenda.
My opinion joins the very few that think Flake’s speech is both remarkable and courageous. It is remarkable because it is unusual for an incumbent politician to simply retire in the prime of his career. And it is courageous because he did not have to say what he said. To keep his job, Flake could have rolled over in submission to Trump and Bannon. Instead, in one brief speech, he defined transcendence in the moment when it was needed most.
Yes, polling shows that his reelection is in jeopardy. But it is still over a year away. That is plenty of time to recover, if he wanted to. But for him to do so would mean selling his soul – a price too high.
In a Washington Post commentary, Flake concisely explains his motivations. He writes, “Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”
He added, “The outcome of this is in our hands. We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something.”
Many people might think it odd for his “something” to be his retirement. Why not stay and fight? Other senators, such as Ben Sasse and Utah’s Mike Lee, refused to vote for Trump and shared their opinions ranging from skeptical to dumbfounded. Why doesn’t Flake do the same thing? Retiring seems like quitting and complaining when quitting feels like whining. But Flake is neither quitting nor whining. He is setting a standard for virtuous public service.
At the heart of our disdain for Donald Trump for we, Never Trumpers, is his lack of character and general unfitness for office. His lack of character is disdainful to us because character is a value we honor. Trump reveals his lack of character when he lies and when he is ignorant of issues and processes. Never Trump backers like me opposed Trump even before he talked about grabbing female genitalia. His crudities are not reflecting his character, per se. His character is reflected each time he places his own pride and ego before his country.
Trump is not only the leader of the free world, he is supposed to be the leader in public virtue. When he fails so miserably, the rest of us are tested. What is our character? When evangelical leaders kowtow to Trump and ignore his bad behavior, they are hypocrites. They lower the national character and exacerbate our slide into corruption and tyranny.
Supporters of Trump and Bannon argue that our slide into corruption already has occurred and was driven by the Establishment seeking to maintain power at all costs. But is Congress stalled or is our nation divided? Maybe the reason even a Republican-controlled Congress and White House cannot come to agreement over their agenda is because the agenda of the American people is a bit more diverse? Trump did lose the popular vote. The opinion that simply getting rid of Mitch McConnell will solve everything is even more stupid than naïve.
Perhaps understanding the importance of Trump’s character deficit might help us to understand Flake’s decision to retire, for now. My guess is he’ll be back and none to soon. But, for now, I am guessing he knows he is in a fight in a closed room with a skunk and that gives winning a whole new meaning. A man of good character knows when to bow out. Flake did the right thing and I, for one, cannot wait for his return.
I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
Paul Mero is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.