At HLS, former Senator Jeff Flake calls for a return to fiscal conservatism

As a U.S. Senator from 2013-19, Jeff Flake of Arizona was one of the few Republicans to be openly critical of President Donald Trump. He stood behind those criticisms when he came to Harvard Law School on Veterans Day, for a discussion entitled “The Future of Conservatism.” As he made clear in the Harvard Federalist Society sponsored talk, that future needs to be considerably different from the present.

Speaking to an overflow crowd at Wasserstein Hall, Flake called for a return to the fiscal conservatism of his role models: William F. Buckley, Margaret Thatcher and especially Barry Goldwater. “I grew up idolizing [Goldwater],” said Flake who was executive director of the Goldwater Institute before entering the House of Representatives in 2001. “He was for limited government, economic freedom, personal responsibility—that really spoke to me.” He also noted that Goldwater resisted conspiracy theories that other Republicans were flirting with. “There was a certain John Birch influence, people claiming that fluoride in water was a form of mind control. Goldwater and Buckley felt that the party needed to be divorced from that.”

Flake devoted only a few minutes to prepared remarks before opening the floor to a lively question-and-answer session. Responding to the first question, he distinguished his vision of conservatism from that of Trump, voicing fiscal as well as philosophical differences.

“We are running a trillion-dollar deficit in times of plenty. We cannot do that forever; at some point it’s going to trip us up. We have always been skeptical of concentrated power, particularly in the executive branch. And this president uses phrases that authoritarians use, calling the press the enemy of the people.” He also challenged Trump’s position on immigration. “Obviously you can’t have open borders, but you need to be welcoming of immigrants. As Republicans, we cannot be branded as xenophobic or nativist, and expect to win elections going forward. Texas and Arizona would be gone for Republicans by the end of a second term.”

Flake famously gave a speech in October 2017 that was heavily critical of Trump, announcing at the same time that he wouldn’t seek reelection. (He had previously voted with Trump on a number of key issues). During his talk at HLS, he was asked how much blowback he’d received from that speech.

“Most of my colleagues felt the same way,” he replied. “If you sat through two years of Republican lunches with the president being the president, you’d know the frustration they have. I wanted to serve a second term in the Senate but I would have had to adopt positions, condone behavior and stand on the same stage as the president. When he ridiculed minorities in my state, and I saw people shouting, ‘Lock her up,’ I could not condone that. My wife now characterizes my time outside the Senate as the days without death threats. That’s what we’ve come to in politics, where it is that visceral.”

He suggested that it might take an election defeat to return the Republican Party to its roots. “Nothing focuses the mind like a big, bad election loss, and I’m afraid that’s where it will come from. The most likely scenario for Republicans to regain their footing is if the president stands for re-election and is defeated soundly. Impeachment or removal are not going to produce enough Republicans who say, ‘We went down the wrong road’.”

One thing that’s eroded conservatism, he believes, is a media landscape that encourages tribalism. “I wish I could say things were getting better. But the bottom line with media organizations is that there is a profit motive to gaining a certain percentage of the voters,” he said, singling out pundits on both sides of the aisle. “Hannity on his best day gets three million viewers, and Rachel Maddow makes MSNBC very popular. So, whether we’re talking about gun control, climate change or Brett Kavanaugh, the incentive is to rush to your corner and stay there. You never admit that anything you hear might persuade you otherwise—to do that makes you the man or woman in the middle, and that’s not a comfortable place to be. There is very little currency for deliberation.”

Conservatism, he said, will have a brighter future when politicians remember how to embrace nuance. “Politics will change when we value someone who is persuadable, someone who can stand on a campaign stage and say, ‘Those people on the other side are not my enemies.’ But right now that doesn’t get you kudos, it gets you a primary challenge from the president.”