Former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake spoke at Tufts on Tuesday night in ASEAN Auditorium as part of Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series about his time in Congress and his experiences opposing President Trump’s rhetoric.
Flake, who served in the U.S. House for 12 years and in the U.S. Senate for six as a representative for Arizona, spoke with Professor of Political Science Deborah Schildkraut.
Flake spoke to his recent history of publicly disagreeing with President Trump and the Republican Party, something that many congressional Republicans have been hesitant to do.
“When the president speaks out or calls the press the enemy of the people, every Republican ought to stand up and say no,” Flake said during the talk.
The former senator also noted his surprise at how many of his former colleagues have been silent in criticizing Trump.
“To give in and concede that the President should be crude or vulgar or just mean and indecent, that has surprised me, how tolerant we’ve been. We don’t condone it if it’s from the other party, and we shouldn’t condone it from our own,” Flake said in an interview with the Daily before the lecture.
However, Flake voiced his disagreement with the opinion that his disapproval of the president should require him to vote against every policy the president supports.
“Some people say if you don’t want the president to have a second term, it’s incumbent on you to not vote for anything they do,” Flake said. “I don’t believe that. We want to see the President succeed.”
Flake cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s controversial statement in 2010, in which he said that it was his number one job to ensure President Obama was a one-term president. Flake said that this statement also deserved rebuke.
“I was critical of that as well,” Flake said. “I try — I don’t always succeed — but I try to put country above party.”
Flake commented on the current state of the Republican Party, arguing that it should return to its earlier principles.
“I think we ought to stand for traditional Republican values: economic freedom, limited government … those are the principles that animated the party for generations, and I think that’s what we will return to eventually,” Flake said.
Flake also stated his belief that the Republican Party should make a stronger attempt to appeal to young voters.
“Young people have been walking away from the party for awhile, and now they’re in a dead sprint. We ought to turn inward and say, ‘We’ve got to do something different,’” Flake said.
Flake cited climate change as an example of where he believes the party can improve.
“Young people are more concerned about the environment and want to see Republicans take responsible action to deal with climate change,” Flake told the Daily.
Flake mentioned that the Republican Party can appeal to younger voters on fiscal policy.
“[The] Republican Party has always been the party of fiscal responsibility. Young people ought to be very concerned about where we are fiscally. We have a 22 trillion dollar debt, and we’re still racking up debt with a good economy,” Flake said.
While in the U.S. Senate, Flake introduced a bill that would implement a revenue-neutral carbon tax, meaning it would increase a tax on carbon while cutting taxes in other areas.
“I have felt for a long time that as a conservative, if you want less of something, you tax it, but you do it in a revenue neutral way, so you’re not picking winners and losers in the economy,” Flake said.
The former senator also spoke to his concern with current international relations and trade policy.
“While we’re debating silly things about whether it’s a wall or a fence, other countries are moving on,” Flake told the Daily. “I think we’ve got to realize that we’re not the only game in town anymore, and we have less leeway to make mistakes because the world is globalized and we’re part of that. We can choose to try to remove ourselves but it’s only to our detriment.”
Flake also discussed his stance on American-Cuban relations, naming his favorite moment in Congress as the time when he worked with colleagues across the aisle to release Alan Gross, an American being imprisoned in Cuba, and to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
“The most memorable moment came when we were about a half hour into the flight [back to the United States] and the pilot announced ‘We have now entered U.S. air space,’ and Alan Gross stood up and shook his fist and said, ‘Now I know I’m free.’ It just reminded me what a special country this is,” Flake said.
Flake acknowledged the divisive nature of contemporary politics and said in an interview that he believes the healing process must start with political leadership.
“You can’t put all the blame on the president, but he has taken advantage of rifts that are already there and driven them deeper. It starts at the top, you have to have a president that models better behavior. You have to have leadership in Congress that will do the same,” Flake said. “We have to govern in the end. We can’t continue to lurch from government shutdown to shutdown and accomplish little in between.”
Flake stated his belief that the incentives in politics must change in order for the country to move forward.
“Any big issue you can think of … the incentive is for public officials to immediately say where they are and rush to the corner,” Flake said. “[Political polarization] will only change when incentives change, and when politicians realize that the people want something different — when people realize that it’s ok to change your mind.”
Flake spoke about his life outside of the U.S. Senate, including what he misses and does not.
“[My least favorite part] was travel and being away from my family,” Flake said. “You miss a lot of baseball games and piano recitals.”
However, Flake noted that there are aspects of being in office that he misses.
“My wife turned to me a couple weeks ago and said, ‘We’ve gone a month without death threats.’ So it’s a little different,” Flake said to the Daily, laughing. “I obviously miss some aspects of being in office, like my colleagues. There are a lot of good people in Washington on both sides of the aisle who are trying to do good things.”