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Jeff Flake and what’s next for conservatism

| Sunday, November 5, 2017

After Sen. Flake announced he will not be seeking re-election, the question must be asked: What is the future of conservatism? Not the “conservatism” that some have mistakenly labeled as the philosophy which guides the current Republican Party with Donald Trump as its standard-bearer, but true conservatism championed by people like William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Jeff Flake himself.

This idea of conservatism cares deeply about people. There’s a reason Buckley, and Flake for that matter, wrote books on the conscience of a conservative. Conservatism is dedicated in economics to the benefits of free trade, to a true social safety net, to limiting regulations and tax burdens on individuals and businesses and to promoting hard work and education. It is dedicated in foreign policy to vigilance in the face of dynamic threats, and ultimately to a just and lasting peace. It is dedicated to good conduct in governance, to good personal morality and the recognition of common human dignity.

To take a few examples, when a Republican president does not accept the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an important step for security and prosperity in Asia, and hurls insults over Twitter at policy makers at home and leaders abroad, conservatives need to defend their philosophical tradition and the party which has been their home from his assaults. This is what Sen. Flake was trying to do. He delivered a moving speech outlining how our national values are threatened and how they are indeed more important than politics. He concluded with the announcement that he would not be running for his Senate seat again.

Many have commended the decision of Sen. Flake to not seek re-election. They point to the quality of his speech (well done), his chances of re-election (admittedly a challenge) and the fact that he can now make decisions and criticisms free from considerations of electoral politics. I admit it is easy to sympathize with the senator’s decision. But the message I heard from the senator was not a positive one. I heard that he is more concerned with preserving his self-image and not being perceived as complicit in the policies and conduct of the Trump administration. I heard that there is no place for principled conservatives with an appreciation for compromise in our government today. I heard that it is OK to give up when the going gets tough.

I am saddened by Sen. Flake’s decision. Although I respect and admire the senator, I fear what his decision means for the future of conservatism. The realities remain that Donald Trump is president and that conservatism must survive the Trump presidency. It can better do so with articulate defenders like Sen. Flake separating, when necessary, its philosophy and policies from those of the president. Criticism from outside government is useful, and I am sure Sen. Flake will continue to address the president’s shortcomings after he leaves office. But criticism from inside government –– and, indeed, from within the party –– is critical to preserving conservatism. His decision should not be to cede electoral authority to Trump. Like Sen. Flake once said, there are things more important than politics. His decision is about hope for conservatives and liberals alike who hold dear our national values. There is still time. Here’s to Sen. Flake, for all our sakes, changing his mind and running a vigorous re-election campaign on the conservative platform.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Nicholas Marr