We are begging the president not to fire the special counsel. Don't create a constitutional crisis. Congress cannot preempt such a firing. Our only constitutional remedy is after the fact, through impeachment. No one wants that outcome. Mr. President, please don't go there.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) March 20, 2018
Then a funny thing happened: Both left and right crapped all over him.
"Stop begging. Pass a law," scoffed Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman in the Obama administration. "It's right there in the Federalist Papers," a sarcastic New Republic staffer Jeet Heer seconded. "Congress will be able to check the president by going on its hands and knees, begging for lawful behaviour."
Things weren't much friendlier on Team Red. "Sounds more like a Jeff Flake crisis than a constitutional crisis," snorted commentator Dan Bongino. At The American Spectator, Brandon J. Weichert placed Flake in the "chorus of consternation from so-called congressional conservatives."
This pattern, curious though it may be, is nothing new. Lefties have been giving Flake the (often inaccurate) too-little-too-late speech since before the 2016 election; conservatives have long called him an immigration softy angling pathetically for media applause. And in a state both passionate and schizophrenic about its politics, Flake has been strikingly unpopular since the beginning of his Senate career.
But there are commonalities, too, with the way people shudder instinctively at other NeverTrumper (or Unfitter) Republicans, including ones not otherwise particularly similar to Flake, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich. So is there a common thread of reaction knitting those two rumored 2020 candidates, along with 2016 fifth-place finisher Evan McMullin, plus Flake's fellow retiring Sen. Bob Corker and whoever else is fragging the president from the GOP big tent? I would suggest three:
1) Sanctimony is inherently off-putting.
"These days," the Washington Examiner's Timothy P. Carney wrote last fall, "I find myself regularly wishing I could make McMullin go away. Like almost every McMullin voter I know, I'm embarrassed by his post-election behavior."
2) The center has its own, hypocrisy-generating gravitational pulls.
John Kasich, standard-issue conservative, was a routine expander and defender of gun rights. John Kasich, inexplicable media darling, is now a talking head warning a "dysfunctional Congress" to "wake up" on gun control. It was only one month ago that the transforming pol scrubbed from his website the verbiage, "Gov. John R. Kasich continues to be a strong supporter of the right to bear arms and, as governor, has signed every pro-2nd amendment bill that has crossed his desk to defend this basic, constitutional right."
Flake, too, has changed his tune on guns, in a more mediagenic direction. He now regrets voting against the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in 2008. Such repositioning might well be heartfelt, but it also gets rewarded by one of the last repositories of Flake enthusiasm: the national media.
3) Those most passionate about Trump want you to pick a side NOW.
Ask late-night comedians how the ratings look in the center of the road. No, better to troll Mike Pence with children's books about gay bunny rabbits.
It's not enough for many Democrats that Jeff Flake urged Republicans not to vote for Trump after he'd already sewn up the nomination, or that he wrote a book against Trumpian conservatism in 2017, or that he wrote a check to Roy Moore's Democratic opponent in Alabama—he voted for the tax cut, man!
And for the pro-Trump brigades in conservative entertainment, Flake is now indistinguishable from Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer.
The center is not a fun or compelling place to be in American politics right now. There's a reason why many even diehard Libertarians shuddered at the Gary Johnson/Bill Weld formulation about a supposed six-lane highway down the center of the road. It can feel more cautious than principled, and does not resonate well in the emotional spaces where much of politics is consumed.
But like ideology, emotions in politics can change on a dime. Should the House and Senate switch back to Democratic control after November, there may be a renewed interest on the right in re-fighting the Battle for the Soul of the GOP. Jeff Flake may be hated now, but people might start returning his calls come December.