Is Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-Ariz.) new book Conscience of a Conservative, a stalking horse for President Mike Pence? The dictionary defines “stalking horse” as “something used to mask a purpose or a candidate put forward to divide the opposition or to conceal someone’s real candidacy.”
Flake may not have intended to write a book making the case for
Vice President Pence but it is hard to read it without thinking that Flake may have been the first to articulate what many of his Republican colleagues in the Senate are thinking: one way or the other, they should cut their losses and make the Vice President the new President.
The case unfolds in three ways. In the first chapter of his book, we learn that Flake and Pence have been good friends since arriving in Congress in 2001. They are both deeply religious people, although Flake is a Mormon and Pence a fundamentalist Christian. They started their political lives in conservative think tanks: Flake as head of the Goldwater Institute and Pence as head of the Indiana Policy Review. According to Flake, as freshmen they bonded over a passion for marginal income tax rate cuts, tag teaming the Bush Administration in their lobbying. Throughout their careers, they have been stalwarts of the very conservative wing of the Republican Party, with 100 percent ratings from the American Conservative Union.
In addition to letting us know of his respect for Pence, Flake makes two arguments throughout the book’s 136 pages. Each one can be read as – why Pence, not Trump.
The first involves Trump’s unhinged style, which stands in marked contrast to his vice president’s more sober and thoughtful demeanor. A few examples:
“… there is a significant difference between appearing to have problems with impulse control and actually having impulse-control problems.”
“… as a governing philosophy, the instability of flying off the handle is a disaster for the United States and is profoundly unconservative.”
“But in the tweeting life of our president, strategy is difficult to detect…. It’s all noise and no signal….volatile unpredictability is not a virtue.”
“It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious.”
The second line of attack is on Trump’s digressions from classic Republican conservatism. He is critical of Trump’s trade policy, especially his opposition to NAFTA. He is critical of Trump’s belief that we can withdraw from the world and of Trump’s hostility to “globalism.” He is critical of Trump’s promises to coal miners and others that he can restore an economy that is long gone. He is critical of Trump’s immigration policy and his hostility to immigrants. “Never,” writes Flake, “has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign. … we lurched like a tranquilized elephant from a broad consensus on economic philosophy and free trade that had held for generations to an incoherent and often untrue mash of back-of-the-envelope populist slogans…What does it say that we had instead succumbed to what can only be described as a propaganda-fueled dystopian view of conservatism?”
No wonder that President Trump has gone after Flake by name (after promising not to) and all but endorsed his opponent in the Republican primary. Flake’s re-election bid was one of only two GOP-held Senate seats in play in 2018, and the Republican primary race indicated he was in danger of not even being his party’s nominee in the midterms. So why would he risk making more enemies, especially in the portion of the Republican base that seems to offer the President unwavering support? I have no doubt that Flake is a genuine and committed conservative, but in an era of increasingly ideologically sorted parties, it’s striking to see him more interested in the next president than the current one.