This week on Freak Out And Carry On, Ron Suskind and Heather Cox Richardson look at the Republican Party's uneasy relationship with President Trump. They speak with Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) about his new book "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle," the legacy of Barry Goldwater and why he thinks Vice President Mike Pence would make a good president.
Heather Cox Richardson: I think it's worth taking a look at the fact that we are, historically, in an extraordinary moment. We are at a moment when both political parties are entirely realigning. It's chaotic. It's exhausting. People don't know which way to jump. The idea that somehow we can do business as usual so long as we can just move the man in the White House to one side or another is just wrong. We are rewriting American history right now. Somehow out of this mess the Republican Party has to find a new way forward. And that way forward is not to cling to the old version of movement conservatism which was the idea that one backed solely economic freedom and a limited government. Maybe I can't see the future but I tell you that's not the answer. What looks to me to be the answer is that we need a new kind of Republican conservatism that looks very much like Eisenhower's, Teddy Roosevelt's, or Lincoln's. The idea that somehow you have to come up with a fiscally responsible, socially conscious government that responds to the will of the people. And watching this happen, watching Lisa Murkowski, watching Susan Collins, watching even John McCain with his thumbs down moment, saying we are not going to be able to be "the party of no" any longer. We actually have to take into consideration that Americans want some of the things that we have said we're not going to do. I know it's got people exhausted. I know people are frustrated and I know they're angry, but this is the moment when parties on both sides are reborn and that people get to have a say in what kind of government we're going to live under.
Ron Suskind: Senator Flake, what would Barry Goldwater say to President Trump right now if he were alone in the room?
Sen. Jeff Flake: Well I hope that he would tell him that he ought to hew back to what traditional conservatism is. That's that's what Goldwater preached and delivered on.
Suskind: You know what Donald Trump would say back to that, Senator Flake. Donald Trump would say people talking like that were the ones sharing the stage with me and I wiped them out and that's why I'm the president. You can go straight to hell. So let's take it in the present tense. What would you say to President Trump if he were sitting here in the room just the two of you?
Flake: Let me go back, I did have a conversation with him during the campaign. I said that I was the other senator from Arizona, the one that hadn't been captured and that we shouldn't talk about... well those are the kind of statements I want to talk to him about. I told him that he shouldn't refer to immigrants from Mexico as rapists. He shouldn't refer to a judge born in Indiana as a Mexican in a pejorative way and expect to win Hispanic votes or grow the party. So that's what I actually did tell him in the only conversation that I had with him.
Suskind: Is this a problem with how he is or what he stands for, because they may be different issues in terms of Donald Trump?
Flake: I don't know, I can't read his mind to see where he is. But if I had that conversation today I would tell him on the policy side that, one, he shouldn't get rid of NAFTA. We ought to modernize but keep it. We've got to quit talking about Mexico paying for a wall because they're not going to. So that's what I would tell him on the policy side. On the other part, and what this book is about as much as policy it's about destructive politics and we can't describe terrible motives to our opponents, our political opponents. And, you know, we're all Americans. That's what I would tell him.
Suskind: Do you think Donald Trump is destroying your beloved Republican Party?
Flake: I'm not using those terms. But I do think that the Republican Party is in a crisis right now, a crisis of confidence about who we are. I was in the Congress from 2001 to 2006 when we had majorities in the House and the Senate and we had the White House as well. We lost it and we deserve to given what the behavior of members of Congress was in terms of rampant spending and earmarking and corruption. A couple members going to jail. This "drain the swamp" language was used by Nancy Pelosi, quite effectively, to describe Republicans. And so we lost the majority and we can lose it again pretty quickly if we don't govern effectively.
Richardson: You know I'm interested here though in something that you keep saying. You've come out of both strongly in favor of democracy and strongly in favor of Goldwater conservatism and really you also keep saying that people keep asking for programs that we can't afford to do. How do you square the idea that everybody should have a say in society with the idea that they shouldn't choose the things they're choosing?
Flake: Well, let me give you an example of that, direct democracy or whether a member of Congress is a delegate or a representative. There was a debate over the prescription drug benefit in 2003. I voted against it even though it was pushed by the president, President George W. Bush and the majority in the House and the Senate, the Republicans at that time. That allowed for government to subsidize prescription drugs for seniors. It added Medicare Part D, but it also added about seven trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities for future generations. And I just thought that that wasn't a wise thing to do. Had I taken a poll in my district which included Leisure World, Sun Lakes, a retirement community, and a bunch of other retirement communities, overwhelmingly people would have said we want this benefit, we want to pay less for prescription drugs. But what was my responsibility at that time to do? Was to go, to put my finger in the air and say, where are the votes? Or do I say, there are a lot of people who can't vote now. Kids, and maybe my grand kids later, will be saddled with this debt and that the kind of thing we have to consider as elected officials. You can't always say what's popular and you ought to go with it. I think that's why the founders were concerned about direct democracy. That's why we have a republic and that's why we have representatives who who are supposed to look at the issues and to look out for the next generation as well.
Suskind: Going back to those days when you arrive in 2001, of course your kindred and colleague was Mike Pence. There is actually a conservative in the White House right now, Mike Pence. Tell us what a Pence presidency would look like because you know as well as I do there are people thinking about that right now. How could they not.
Flake: Well I am let me just say I admire Mike Pence a lot. I've known him since the '90s when we both ran conservative think tanks. And I just think the world of Mike and his family and I think that he would be a good president. One, Mike is, as you've seen, just kind and generous to a fault. And I can never see him using the kind of language that's been used. So I think that in terms of demeanor and comportment, then he would be quite a different president.
Suskind: And and if he offer you the vice presidency would you take it?
Flake: (laughs) I'm not going there! I think the world of Mike Pence.
Richardson: So the thing about partisanship especially on the right really beginning in the 1980s is that it's not actually legitimate debate. It seems to me if you listen to why they are talking the way they are, in for example DeLay's quote about standing up to liberalism, it's really important to remember that when people like Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., Tom DeLay, Ronald Reagan talk about liberalism they're not talking about Democrats. They're talking about Democrats and Republicans both, people that Newt Gingrich go on to call RINOs — Republican In Name Only — who believe that the government actually has a role to play in social welfare, in the regulation of business, in constructing infrastructure. Things that were part of, what in the 1950s was called, "the liberal consensus" that was embraced both by Democrats but also by Eisenhower, by Nelson Rockefeller, by what were known at the time as mainstream Republicans, now would be considered progressives. But when they keep talking about pushing back against liberalism and the partisanship of that, their real central problem is that ideological problem. Americans like that. That's the way government works best. So in order to push back against that, they actually had to double down on sort of an extremist emotional partisanship that was the only way they could get voters to adhere to programs and adhere to them when they actually liked the programs of what they were considering liberalism.
Suskind: When I covered the Bush administration what you saw was an internal conflict that was never resolved. They wanted things but they never wanted to pay for them. You know here you've got two big giant things that many conservatives don't like. One was No Child Left Behind. And what that was saying is that the federal government should really oversee education and should take responsibility. A lot of conservatives said that's not what you want to do. That's a Rooseveltian style idea. That's going to mean lots of boundaries that are crossed in terms of what you are now obligating us to do. The other side of it was the prescription drug mandate which said the government will cover a vast expansion of coverage for prescription drugs. Now nowadays Jeff Flake calls it a seven billion dollar unfunded mandate. Well the bottom line is that they wanted these things but they never wanted to pay for them. The signature quote from that presidency, one of them, is after they won the midterm elections in 2002 and Paul O'Neill, the treasury secretary, and [Vice President] Dick Cheney are talking. They're trying to push through, Cheney and Bush, a second big, giant tax cut for the wealthy, very similar to the prescription drugs bill, a big big giveaway of money they didn't have. And and Paul O'Neill says, "Mr. Vice President"--these guys known each other for 30 years--"That's just unconscionable. I mean it will blow a hole in the budget our grand kids won't be able to pay." And Cheney says famously, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter. We won the midterms. This is our due." What's that about? It's about power. We won. We have the power. We're going to take every license to exercise that power. Policy, that's for later or for never. That is exactly the separation that has gotten the Republican Party into trouble. They want this thing, prescription drugs, but they never wanted to pay for it. That's the hard part.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.