Q&A With Former Senator Jeff Flake



Drew Perez

Aiyappa Bollera and Drew Perez contributed to this article.

On January 17, former Senator Jeff Flake came to Langford Auditorium for the most recent installment of the Vanderbilt Chancellor’s Lecture Series. Speaking alongside Chancellor Zeppos, Visiting Professor Jon Meacham, and This American Life producer Zoe Chace, he discussed his views on modern American politics and the direction of the Republican party.

VPR had the opportunity to sit down with the former Senator to talk policy, civility, and his plans for 2020.

VPR: Your talk is called “The Conscience of a Conservative,” based around your book. What do you think that means in the era of Trump?

JF: Well, I mean conservatism, in a traditionally political sense, is meant in defense of limited government, economic freedom, free trade, and strong American leadership. And that’s quite far a field from where we are right now, particularly in the areas of trade and American leadership in the world.

VPR: Do you think Trumpism is a unique diversion from modern American conservatism, or that it is a logical extension of where things have ended up?

JF: I’m hoping that it’s a diversion. Because there’s just not much there, there. Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy. They can only take you so far. The author of the original Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater, back in the early 60s, he and William F. Buckley Jr. were concerned at that time about the John Birch Society. They had given into conspiracy theories, they thought that Eisenhower was a closet Communist. The two of them felt that they needed to purge that kind of element from the party. They called it an “emblem of irresponsibility” in the Republican party, and that the party shouldn’t be associated with that. So they were able to lead the charge to kind of push that philosophy, or lack thereof, I guess, aside. That didn’t happen this time. And many of the same elements are exhibited here: prone to conspiracy theories, whether it’s birtherism or whatever else. But now, the emblem of irresponsibility made it all the way to the White House. But I do think that it is an aberration. It needs to be because it’s not populism, you just can’t govern well with it.

VPR: You did express in your time in office a good deal of support for President Trump’s legislative agenda. According to FiveThirtyEight, you voted with the President about 81 percent of the time when it came to legislative issues. Do you see the primary issue of populism being the legislative agenda or just the rhetoric that couches it?

JF: It’s both. There are certain policies that I certainly objected to and voted against. Immigration, trade policy, and some of the things we’ve talked about. But it certainly has to do with style, tone, and rhetoric as well, and just playing to the base, and inventing enemies that we don’t have. That certainly is what I think typifies a lot of what we see and hear out of the White House right now. Some people expect that if you aren’t a fan of the President, all of a sudden you check your Republican principles at the door somehow. I voted to repeal Obamacare 30-some times before President Trump ever came along. Yet, when I did the same vote this time, people said: “well, hey, if you’re opposed to Trump, you should vote on the other side of that.” And that wouldn’t be consistent – you don’t vote against something out of spite, and a lot of the regulatory policy, tax policy, healthcare policy, these were things that we had pushed forward and voted on long before the President came along. The fact that he agreed with them shouldn’t change my vote.

VPR: One of the biggest reasons you didn’t seek reelection in 2018 was because you didn’t want to sacrifice your beliefs and conform to the Trump agenda. You believed that it wouldn’t be possible to be reelected if you didn’t do that. At the same time, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is somewhere around 90 percent right now. Do you believe that there is a conservative movement in America apart from Donald Trump and his agenda?

JF: Not one that is viable at the polls right now. This is very much the President’s party right now. I don’t think it will always be, but it is right now. It’s very difficult to run as a skeptic of the President or his policies, let alone a critic. But that won’t always be the case. I’ve been surprised; in Arizona, for example, he was elected just by three or four percentage points. It wasn’t a big victory. There were a lot of Republicans who said: “it’s the Supreme Court we’re concerned about, so we’ve got to go that way.” But that support has solidified and even grown among Republicans, largely because it’s become an “us versus them.”. . . If the midterms didn’t shake us up, they should have. Because they’re just limits that the President’s appeal to the party, among party faithful, is real and solid. But politically, it’s just not thick enough to win national elections and to win most statewide elections. We saw it in Arizona – those who embraced the President and his policies and behavior lost statewide. I think that if anything, that effect will be exaggerated if he’s on the ballot again.

VPR: You worked to slow down the process of providing emergency aid and disaster relief to Puerto Rico earlier in 2017 on the premise that it did not permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act, along with fiscal concerns. Do you think those concerns justified the delay in providing aid?

JF: Whether it’s Katrina aid, or Sandy relief, or whatever, it becomes a Christmas tree for other things moving forward. So even if you support the underlying legislation, you hope sometimes to stop that process and clean up the bill. So if that wasn’t the case, then whenever there’s any disaster, it would just become more of a Christmas tree. Most fiscal conservatives have tried to pare down knowing that if legislation like that failed, then the new effort would be cleaner, and be better, and be more specific to the purpose. Jones relief, we can get some of that, but every new disaster, that just seems to be what happens – we load it up with other things that are unrelated.

VPR: Given the scale of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico at the moment, would you go back and vote the exact same way you did?

JF: I’d have to look back and see, but it’s not just that one, it’s a number of disasters. In my book, I wrote the one regret I have is my vote against the TARP package during the financial crisis. I kind of relied on my colleagues to carry my water on that. That was the effect of hoping “yes” and voting “no.” In that case, that bill failed once and passed a second time. I voted against it both times. Looking back at it, I would have voted yes because it needed to pass that time. That’s unlike many of the disaster relief things. Obviously, there’s sometimes a pretty urgent need, but most of the time, FEMA aid is what comes in first, that’s not affected by the larger bill. To try to use what leverage you can to keep the bill as clean from a fiscal standpoint as it should be, I can’t say that I would have voted differently on those.

VPR: You recently tweeted a Washington Post article that advocated for a carbon tax. However, in the past, you haven’t always been completely solid on the issue of climate change. In 2015, for example, you voted “no” on an amendment to the Keystone Pipeline legislation that read that climate change is indeed manmade. Do you believe that climate change is caused by humans?

JF: I believe in the science. I don’t know what that specifically was, but it’s not this notion that you can’t believe that climate change is real and still vote for the Keystone Pipeline. You can, for example, vote to increase natural gas exploration on public lands. Some would say: “that’s an anti-environmental stance.” No, moving to natural gas, away from coal, significantly cleans up the environment. That’s not to say you do that everywhere at all times, but you’ve got to get away from the notion that every vote that is taken that isn’t for just renewables, and nuclear power, for example, [is bad]. We have a lot of problems with increased nuclear power, but it’s mostly from the left. The left will say: “we ought to believe the science — climate change,” which I think a lot of Republicans have a hard time [on], not me, but some do. But then, the same Democrats will not accept the science with regard to nuclear power, the only carbon-free base load that we need. With regard to that carbon tax, I’ve just always felt that the best way to move with the scale we’re going to need to move at to have that effect on climate change is to not dink around with a subsidy here, and a subsidy there for renewables, it’s just to do it the honest way. If you want less of something, economists will tell you: “you tax it.” If you want more of something, you either relieve a tax burden or allow that to flourish. The carbon tax is the most honest way to do it. Cap and trade has some market elements, but it’s too prone to favors for this industry or that one. A carbon tax is straight-up nice, and I should know — it was the last bill I introduced in the Senate. But I introduced a very similar bill about ten years ago in the House, so I’ve felt this way for a long time.

VPR: In 2017, you voted in favor of the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act, which increased warrantless surveillance and the power of the Executive Branch to gauge more investigations. Do you think that was an appropriate vote given that Donald Trump is the chief executor of the Executive Branch?

JF: Yeah. I think you’ve got to have some trust in the institutions, in this case, the Department of Justice and the FBI… Some people say: “since you oppose the President, you ought to not do anything that would allow the President to have the success, legislatively, because that would just embolden him before the next election, and you shouldn’t do that.” I don’t think that’s the case. Leader [Mitch] McConnell got a lot of criticism for a statement early in Barack Obama’s term, where he said, “my job is to make sure he’s a one-term President.” People said: “you would put aside what’s good for the country just to make him a one-term President?” I feel the same way with President Trump, I think we have to be consistent here. There are certain things and powers that, given where he is, if you have enough concern about the institutions holding, then you might consider differently. But with regard to the FISA amendment and who’s in charge there, I felt comfortable enough then and I do now that they’ll hold their own. That same kind of logic, with people saying: “well, you ought to vote against the President,” when it’s something that the left likes that the President does, then they will sometimes change their tune. For example, criminal justice reform. That’s something that certainly the President was in favor of. That’s something that many of us have been working for years on, and the President happens to share our view on that. If I am concerned about other things that the President might do, or concerned about the prospects of him getting a second term — I don’t want him to get a second term — should I say, “I should vote against criminal justice reform because that success will have happened on his watch and he will get some credit for that”? Is that justification to vote “no”? I would argue, no. That same thing translates to other policy positions as well. You try, and none of us succeed. I certainly don’t always in making the right calculation. You do the best you can and try to put the country first.

VPR: You were one of a small number of Republicans who supported an FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh. Do you think that the investigation the FBI granted, with the low number of actual interviews they conducted, was enough to justify your vote?

JF: The Anita Hill investigation was a three-day investigation, and people thought that that was sufficient. I would have liked to have started the process earlier and had a longer, more thorough investigation — that would have been my preference. I’m not saying that background checks or background investigations should be made public — they shouldn’t, or people wouldn’t subject themselves to it enough, and we need good people willing to know that those background checks — because they are thorough — remain classified. That said, I think had the country been able to see and read that report that the FBI came back with, though it was more limited and shorter than I would have liked, I think the country would feel better about where we landed in that case.

VPR: You were spotted at the New York offices of CBS last week. Do you have any plans to work at the network?

JF: I did talk to CBS, and I guess I was the only one that filed anything to say I was in discussions with CBS and the Harry Walker agency. But, I’ll just say I’m talking to them.

Image Credit: Drew Perez