Sept. 23 (Bloomberg) — Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona likes President Barack Obama, voted to give him the authority to strike Syria, supported the comprehensive immigration legislation favored by the White House, and works comfortably with members of the opposing party.
The six-term House Republican, who is now serving his first term in the Senate, also is a rock-ribbed conservative, especially on economic and fiscal issues. He has been a darling of the Club for Growth; before going to Congress, he ran the Goldwater Institute in his home state.
As a conservative who mixes conviction and civility, he is a member of a vanishing breed. He is an antidote to the Tea Party-driven congressional Republicans who are threatening to shut down the government or risk a U.S. default by refusing to increase the debt ceiling — and don’t withhold their venom toward Obama. (Michigan representative Kerry Bentivolio, for example, delights his constituents with his relish for a presidential impeachment. His animosity runs so deep that he said he “couldn’t stand” to be in the same room with Obama.)
On most social questions, Flake is squarely on the right. He opposes abortion rights, and, unlike Arizona’s senior senator, John McCain, he refused to break with orthodoxy and support a mild background check for gun buyers. He is a Mormon — a graduate of Brigham Young University and a former missionary in Africa — and opposes same-sex marriage. But he isn’t a demagogue; in the House, he voted to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” restriction and to allow gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
Even though he has been attacked from the political right for defying the majority in his party with his Syria and immigration votes, he has no regrets.
“Syria was more about the presidency than the president,” he said in an interview last week outside the Senate chamber. “You’ve got to look beyond the immediate. America benefits from having a strong commander in chief.”
He was a member of the bipartisan Senate Gang of Eight, which crafted a comprehensive immigration-reform measure this year. Six years ago, he backed another effort to change immigration policies. “There’s a much better atmosphere today on immigration than there was in 2007,” he said.
As a U.S. representative, Flake’s successful libertarian-minded campaign to ban earmarks — the small spending projects that members were long allowed to direct to their districts — so annoyed party leaders that he was denied a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Flake acknowledged that ending earmarks also took away a tool lawmakers used to forge compromises though political horse-trading. Nonetheless, he insists that the practice perpetuated an “obscene” system. “Members of Congress used earmarks to contract out their campaign financing,” he said. “It was the currency of corruption.”
He is consistently anti-spending, anti-tax and anti-deficit. A decade ago, he was one of the few House Republicans to oppose President George W. Bush’s expanded prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens because the measure wasn’t paid for. He has favored replacing the income tax with a national sales tax.
On the economy, Obama “has been a disaster,” he said. Yet the athletic and deeply tanned Arizonan concedes that the president “has a good jump shot,” which he observed when he was invited to play in one of the president’s pickup basketball games.
Unlike some of his colleagues, he doesn’t personalize his philosophical differences with Obama. “I’ve never been able to work up the hatred that some Republicans have for the president,” Flake said. “As a person, I like him; he’s a good family man.”
The fiscal conservative believes Tea Party-inspired plans to shut down the government or to oppose an increase in the debt ceiling and risk default unless Obamacare is killed are crazy. “It’s a mistake,” said Flake. He, too, is a critic of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but he says the hardline Republican approach “won’t work, and Congress is held in pretty low regard already.”
This sensible stance has drawn the ire of a few old allies. The Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee, is running ads against Flake and other Republicans who refuse to hold the government hostage to repealing the health care law.
The PAC gushed over Flake during his Senate run last year, and its chairman, former Republican Senator Jim DeMint, endorsed him: “When it comes to fighting wasteful spending and parochial politics, nobody has done more to advance the cause of freedom than Jeff Flake. Nobody.”
Today, Flake shrugs off the criticism as well as the more vicious attacks on his Syria vote and his immigration stance, but he regrets the more acrimonious political climate. “The last five years or so, this has become a lot more intense,” he said. “It’s the shirts versus the skins; you can’t work with the other side on anything.”
He said he would continue to seek common ground with the other side: “There are a lot of talented, straight-shooting Democrats here.” Specifically, he cites his work with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on regulatory matters, with Colorado senator Michael Bennet on immigration, and with a fellow freshman, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, on questions related to public land.
Most of his closer Republican colleagues share his fiscal conservatism: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Florida’s Marco Rubio, with whom he also worked on immigration. He also has high regard for — and often defers to — McCain, even though his Arizona colleague doesn’t share all his conservative views.
The breakdown in comity and increased political polarization, he said, doesn’t just stymie liberals; it’s harmful to conservative causes, too.
“As an advocate of limited government, I’m often not opposed to gridlock,” he said. But the lack of any regular order in the Senate “inhibits oversight and other responsibilities.”
The result often is destructive and mean-spirited politics: “When you engage in vitriol,” he said, “it always comes back to haunt you.”