Sen. Jeff Flake: 'As Conservatives, Our First Obligation Is To Be Honest' A new book by the Republican from Arizona details where he thinks the GOP has gone wrong. Flake wrote the book in secret because he didn't want his advisers to try to talk him out of it.
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Sen. Jeff Flake: 'As Conservatives, Our First Obligation Is To Be Honest'

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Sen. Jeff Flake: 'As Conservatives, Our First Obligation Is To Be Honest'

Sen. Jeff Flake: 'As Conservatives, Our First Obligation Is To Be Honest'

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A Republican senator has chosen a dramatic moment to question the direction of his party.


Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona is a longtime critic of President Trump. Now he has written a book detailing where he thinks his party has gone wrong.

JEFF FLAKE: I'm not blaming this I think lack of principle or where we are solely on the president. He's more the culmination of it.

MARTIN: Flake never endorsed his party's presidential candidate. He has praised many of Trump's appointments but is mostly dismayed by his policies. Now he's preparing to campaign for re-election in 2018 even as White House officials have met with potential primary challengers to Flake.

INSKEEP: And it's at this tense moment that Senator Flake has been secretly writing his book. He says even his closest advisers did not know about it until recently. It carries a provocative title, a title borrowed from another book written more than half a century ago by Arizona Senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

So why'd you write a book called "Conscience Of A Conservative"?

FLAKE: Well, you know, it's been 56 years now since Goldwater, you know, back in 1960 realized that the Republican Party had kind of been compromised by the New Deal. And...

INSKEEP: Meaning - when you say compromised by the New Deal, meaning that Republicans, in his view, had become too accepting of big social programs.

FLAKE: That's right. That's right - compromised by, you know, huge federal bureaucracy and that the concept of limited government was going. Well, I thought, you know, now we're, you know, 56 years in. It was time to reassess where we are. And I'm very troubled about where the Republican Party is now. It seems that we've been compromised but this time by different forces, those of populism and protectionism, isolationism, xenophobia. And I'm concerned about how we remain a governing party with those principles.

INSKEEP: What went wrong?

FLAKE: You know, this is a long time in coming. I got here to Washington in 2001 - myself and Mike Pence, actually. We both ran conservative think tanks in the '90s. We knew each other then. But then we got to Washington in 2001. And we got the No Child Left Behind which was I thought big federal overreach into local education policy, and that...

INSKEEP: President Bush's signature education policy.

FLAKE: That's right. And then we got the prescription drug benefit, which added about $7 trillion in unfunded liabilities. I didn't think that that was a very conservative thing to do. When we couldn't argue that we were the party of limited government anymore, then that forced us into issues like flag burning (laughter) or trying to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, things that, you know, we wouldn't have done otherwise if we would have been arguing about true principles of limited government or spending.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me the backstory of the rise of President Trump, the conditions that made it possible for him to become the presidential nominee and the president?

FLAKE: Very much so. I do think that we made the ground fertile for somebody like President Trump to come along. And I think that now we've abandoned many of our principles like free trade and American leadership around the world. But also, we've become a coarser party.

Being a conservative isn't just adopting conservative policies. I think it matters in terms of demeanor and comportment. With foreign policy, for example, I think a conservative foreign policy is something that is steady and predictable, where you embrace your allies and recognize your adversaries. You know, I don't see that much now.

INSKEEP: Why do you think 62 million Americans voted for President Trump?

FLAKE: I certainly recognize the frustrations that people have. I feel and hear it every day when I'm home, when I go to the grocery store or to the gym or anywhere. People are concerned about their jobs, their economic future. They wonder if their kids will have the same opportunities that they've had. And I think Donald Trump kind of spoke to that.

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. And what...

INSKEEP: And sometimes there may be a little truth to that.

FLAKE: But what is not recognized is that it's largely been productivity gains and automation.

INSKEEP: That have put people out of work.

FLAKE: We manufacture - yeah, that's right. We manufacture twice as much as we did in the 1980s with one-third fewer workers. And those productivity gains will continue. Globalization has happened. And the question is, do we harness it for our benefit, or are we left behind by it?

We are, you know, less than 5 percent of the world's population, and we're less than 20 percent of the world's economic output. If we don't find new markets for our goods, if we don't trade and enter into multilateral and bilateral trade agreements, we'll be left behind. And we won't grow economically.

INSKEEP: Why did you write this book in secret?

FLAKE: Well, you know, I'm up for re-election in a year. And any good political consultant - and I have a lot of them (laughter) around me and advisers who advise me. And they're doing their job if they're telling me, you know, don't do anything risky; don't do anything that would anger any individual person or a group. Kind of lay low. That's what good political consultants tell you.

But I thought that this was too important. And I felt that, you know, we need to return to principle. It's never - there's never seems to be a convenient time, certainly not when you're up for election. But if I waited until I was safely re-elected and then wrote the book, it wouldn't mean as much.

INSKEEP: I think...

FLAKE: It means more when there's something at risk.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me that you kept it secret because you didn't want anyone to even have a chance to talk you out of it.

FLAKE: That's right. That's right.


FLAKE: And I tell you, I have good people around me who are committed to principle. But you know, the political world will tell you, you know, keep quiet. Don't take the risk. And I thought that it was important to stand up when I had something to risk. I think it means more at that point.

INSKEEP: Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, thanks very much.

FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.


INSKEEP: His new book is called "Conscience Of A Conservative: A Rejection Of Destructive Politics And A Return To Principle."


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