The Politics of Division

Jeff Flake, former Republican senator from Arizona, tells a Tufts audience that voters need to value politicians who govern on their principles
Jeff Flake speaking at Tufts
“I do think the incentives have to change in order for politicians to change,” said Jeff Flake. Voters need to value “people who will actually reach across the aisle—to admit that compromise is not a dirty word.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
March 13, 2019

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The divisive politics that’s so prevalent in the country isn’t going away any time soon, Jeff Flake told a Tufts audience on March 12. Flake, a former senator from Arizona, made a name for himself as a Republican willing to speak out against Donald Trump, and paid the price: he decided not to run for reelection in 2018, convinced he could not win the Republican primary.

Flake spoke to a packed ASEAN Auditorium on March 12 as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series; the event was moderated by Deborah Schildkraut, professor of political science and author of Americanism in the Twenty-First Century: Public Opinion in the Age of Immigration. Flake spoke about topics ranging from immigration policy to youth voting, and in particular about the political atmosphere in Washington.

On immigration issues, Flake pointed to his firsthand experience in that sphere. Growing up on a ranch in Snowflake, Arizona, he worked alongside workers from Mexico who, back then, would come across the border, earn money, and return home. “When I got to Washington, I could never look at those who crossed the border illegally simply to work as a criminal class,” he said. “That’s what motivated me to work on immigration reform when I was in the House and in the Senate.”

Flake was one of eight senators who put together bipartisan legislation in 2013 dealing with immigration, which never passed into law. When immigration reform is finally accomplished, he said, the provisions in the bill he worked on “will be the guts of it, because those elements—border security, guest worker [and] temporary worker programs, mechanisms to deal with those illegally here—will all have to be part of the ultimate solution.”

He pointed out that “nearly half of those here illegally now didn’t cross the border illegally; they came and have overstayed. And you can’t say you’re going to solve it with one measure or one instrument.”

Asked by Schildkraut about Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the country’s southern border, Flake said that in his view, “the notion that this is a national emergency is a bit contrived—we have had situations that are worse.” He added, though, that “it definitely needs to be better, we do need in certain areas better barriers.” He wasn’t hopeful for a political solution anytime soon. “I think we’re going to kind of lurch from one crisis to another.”

Jeff Flake with moderator Deborah Schildkraut. “Some people say that if you oppose the president, and you don’t want him to have a second term—and I don’t—then it’s incumbent to not give him any victories,” Flake said. “I just don’t believe that; I just don’t believe that’s good policy.” Photo: Alonso NicholsThe strong political divisions in America are not new, Flake said. “There are many fathers to this problem,” he said. “To put all the blame on the president is wrong. The president has exacerbated and taken advantage of the divisions, but they existed long before he came along.”

On any big issue that comes along—the deficit, climate change, gun policy—the incentive is for public officials to immediately stake out a position “and rush to their corner or tribe and stay there,” Flake said.

“And don’t indicate for a second that you might be open to change your mind, or that your vote might be informed by a hearing you are chairing or an investigation that might occur—because as soon as you do, as soon as that crack opens, you are hit by both sides,” he said. “I have lived in that space for the past two years, and it’s not a comfortable place to be. No one wants to be in it, particularly if you are looking for reelection.”

Flake doesn’t see a way out of the impasse without a shift in voters’ attitudes. “That will only change when those incentives change, and when politicians realize that people want something different, they want their elected officials to govern—and that it’s OK to change your mind sometimes, it’s OK to deliberate.”

Although he opposed Trump on issues such as the travel ban and criticized him for calling the press “the enemy of the people,” one student questioner pointed out that according to FiveThirtyEight, the political analysis website, he voted with Trump 81 percent of the time while in the Senate.

Flake responded by saying that “any of the lists out there are not indicative of how I voted,” saying that many of the votes were for executive appointment such as “judgeships and cabinet members.”

That said, he added, “I am a conservative. And on regulatory and tax policies I believe in conservative principles; if you have a conducive tax and regulatory environment you generally have a better economy.”

Asked about the idea that supporting Trump in any way helps him get reelected, Flake disagreed. “Some people say that if you oppose the president, and you don’t want him to have a second term—and I don’t—then it’s incumbent to not give him any victories,” he said. “I just don’t believe that; I just don’t believe that’s good policy.”

As an example, he pointed to his votes on the Affordable Care Act. “I haven’t been a fan of Obamacare,” he said. “I voted to repeal Obamacare I think about thirty-four times before President Trump was elected. Then when he is elected president, should I then now vote the other way because he is president and wants the same thing? I don’t think so.”

He said his reasons for not supporting Trump in 2016 stemmed from Trump’s involvement with the “birther” movement. “I thought anybody who believes that should not be president, and anybody who doesn’t believe it, but takes advantage of the fact that some people do—and I think that’s the camp the president is in—that’s even more disqualifying. I could never warm to the president given the comments he made about Mexicans and my colleague John McCain—I could just never support him.”

But he acknowledged that he is in a minority of current Republican politicians. “The party has really coalesced around the president, I think to our detriment as Republicans.”

Asked about youth voting, an area of expertise at Tisch College, he responded that getting out the youth vote is critical, and that Republicans trail Democrats in that arena.

Toward the end of his talk, Flake said that “we have faced bigger challenges than we face today and have dealt with them.” But to deal with them effectively, he added, “I do think . . . the incentives have to change in order for politicians to change.” Voters need to value “people who will actually reach across the aisle—to admit that compromise is not a dirty word.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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