Arizona Senator Jeff Flake is a conservative, but he's not on the GOP's lunatic fringe. He has never been a fan of Donald Trump, nor does he like the direction Trump and his supporters are taking the Republican party. On July 31 Flake gave an interview to NPR in which he criticized the current state of his party and the early 21st century version of conservatism.
Flake's interview was to promote his new book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. The title is intended to evoke memories of a previous Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater, whose 1960 work, The Conscience of a Conservative, was a manifesto of American conservatism in the 60s and 70s.
The senator makes some good points in the conversation, like when he questions conservatives' heavy investment in social issues. But he also sees the party as having lost its way during the George W. Bush years, with programs such as Medicare Part D, the unfunded prescription drug coverage mandate. Such "big government" programs, he argues, moved the party away from the traditional conservative values of fiscal restraint and "limited government."
"When we couldn't argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that we wouldn't have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending."
Flake is right for calling out his party for getting deeply involved in those issues, but his timeline is off. Conservatives' fixation with social issues goes back to at least the Reagan years, when the GOP co-opted the fledgling "Christian conservative" movement.
The most applause-worthy moment of the interview comes when Flake calls for conservatives to be honest with citizens, particularly on economic issues.
"But I think as conservatives, our first obligation is to be honest with people and telling factory workers for example — it's always easier for a politician to point to a shuttered factory and say 'That's because of free trade. That's because Mexico took those jobs, or China did.' But what is not recognized is that it's largely been productivity gains and automation."
Honesty is always a laudable quality, and Flake deserves credit for acknowledging that Trump is conning people by indicating that he will bring back millions of manufacturing jobs. But dishonesty among conservatives is nothing new, and didn't start with Trump. It has been around for decades, and Flake certainly knows that. It's just that Trump and many modern conservatives have elevated lying to an art form.
Republicans have used outright lies and distortions of the truth to raise objections to almost every program ever created to benefit American citizens. They lied about Social Security when it was created, saying it was the beginning of a dictatorship and would lead America to socialism. Several decades later they revived the same arguments to attack Medicare. And that attack was led by a man who is no doubt a hero to Jeff Flake: Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was such a prolific liar that you could easily argue that his repeated misstatements of fact during his presidency were the precursor to the fact-free presidency of Trump. In 1980, Reagan attacked the minimum wage, arguing as Republicans have for years that it causes job losses -- a sentiment that Flake obviously shares, given that he and his Arizona colleague John McCain blocked a vote on a minimum wage increase in 2014. But there is no evidence that the minimum wage has a negative effect on jobs.
And there is what is perhaps Reagan's biggest lie -- the "welfare queen." In his 1976 campaign for president, Reagan said this in describing a woman he claimed had mastered cheating the system:
"She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year."
At the time no one could locate such a woman. And it was later learned that she didn't exist. The "Great Communicator" had simply made her up.
Don't expect most conservatives to listen to Flake's call for more honesty. To start with, Jeff Flake isn't a leader in the conservative movement. In fact, he may be looking for a job after the 2018 election, as he is considered to be one of the two most endangered Republicans in the Senate. And his colleagues on the right will certainly see very little reward in developing a streak of honesty. They feed their base the lies those people want to hear, and in return they keep getting elected.
So while we should laud Jeff Flake for his critique of American conservatism and its relationship with the truth, he needs to be reminded that conservative mendacity did not begin with, nor will it end with, Donald Trump. Trump is the master of the bald-faced lie, but he is far from the only practitioner of the art. Conservatives will need to see political benefits from telling the truth, or the current situation will never change. Given the long romance between the right and lying, don't expect to see a lot of conservatives rushing to hop on Flake's bandwagon anytime soon.