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Jeff Flake calls for ending ‘destructive partisan tribalism’ in New Hampshire

October 2, 2018

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake traveled to the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire on Monday to call for a new kind of politics that rejects the “destructive partisan tribalism” that has infected Washington and prevented elected leaders from tackling the nation’s biggest problems.

The visit came several days after Mr. Flake played a central role in the kerfuffle over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, making him a target of criticism from activists on the right and the left.

“My message here today is that tribalism is ruining us,” said the Arizona Republican at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “It is tearing our country apart. It is not the way for sane adults to act and most importantly, ultimately, the only tribe to which any of us owes allegiance is the American tribe.”

Fueled by his criticism of President Trump’s combative style of politics, Mr. Flake’s national profile has been rising as he prepares to leave the Senate after a single term.

Mr. Flake, who is not seeking re-election, said governing is hard, being a demagogue is easy and “dehumanization requires very little talent.”

“To self-styled smash-mouth tough guy politicians, bipartisanship has become a mushy word,” he said. “It isn’t viscerally satisfying to people who always have to have their way, the way that 2-year-olds must have their way. No offense to 2-year-olds, but they have no business in elected office.”

Arguably the biggest moment of Mr. Flake’s more than 16-year career in Congress came Friday when he called for the Kavanaugh nomination to be delayed a week to give the FBI time to investigate allegations of sexual assault that have been leveled against Mr. Trump’s pick for the high court.

His visit Monday to New Hampshire, his second of the year, added to the questions about what’s next for the 55-year-old, including whether he could launch a primary challenge against Mr. Trump in 2020.

Stephen Duprey, a member of the Republican National Committee from New Hampshire, said Mr. Trump would be hard to beat.

“Trump won the New Hampshire primary by 19 percent, and this time around he has a strong economy and the powers of the incumbency behind him, so anyone who thinks challenging him in New Hampshire will be easy is underestimating him,” he said. “That said, two years from now is a lifetime in politics.”

Mr. Flake has downplayed the presidential buzz.

“I have said that I do hope that somebody else runs in the Republican primary,” Mr. Flake said Monday during an appearance at the “Forbes 30 Under 30″ event in Boston. “The Republican Party is the president’s party right now, but it won’t always be, and it can’t be if we are going to be a major political force in the future.

“I don’t see that happening in my case.”

In an interview on CBS “60 Minutes” over the weekend, Mr. Flake said he would not have been able to reach a deal with Senate Democrats to call for the FBI investigation if he had been running for re-election.

“No, not a chance,” Mr. Flake said. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle. There’s no currency for that anymore. There’s no incentive.”

Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, said Mr. Flake is serving as the”conscience” of the party and said he is surprised by the pushback he has received.

“He is taking flak from the left for not taking enough of a stand, and I am like, ‘What more do you want?’” he said of the Kavanaugh battle. “The one person who taps the brakes on this thing and you are saying he is not pushing hard enough?”

Mr. Flake served more than a decade in the House before winning his Senate seat in 2013.

He has received high marks from conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and the American Conservative Union, but has fallen out of favor with Trump supporters and grass-roots activists.

Last year, he released his book, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle,” in which he lamented how conservatism has become compromised by “nationalism, populism, xenophobia, extreme partisanship, even celebrity.”

He ran with that same message Monday.

“I have been failing my tribe for some time now,” Mr. Flake said. “Well, by the ways that we measure political success in this sordid era and by the conventions of how party loyalist are supposed to behave. I hope to continue to fail my tribe. I would encourage us all across the political spectrum to take the same risk. Step out of your tribe.”

Mr. Flake came under fire from both parties during the Kavanaugh hearings, including from women who berated him in a Capitol Hill elevator after he announced he planned to vote in favor of moving the nomination to the full Senate.

Mr. Flake, though, changed gears, calling for the final confirmation vote to be pushed back to give the FBI time to look into the claims against Mr. Kavanaugh, which he has vehemently denied.

Tom Rath, a veteran GOP operative in New Hampshire, said it is far too early to speculate about whether Mr. Flake could be a viable presidential contender, but said he is happy he is airing his views.

“I hope there is an appetite for it,” Mr. Rath said of Flake’s message.

“I don’t think we win in national elections very often just by being angry and I think Flake speaks to a different type of Republican,” he said. “They are not necessarily conservative or liberal, but they are willing to listen and work with other people. That is a style that Reagan had, the Bushes had.”

Mr. Cullen, who has never been a fan of Mr. Trump, said he hopes Mr. Flake keeps it up.

“I want him to be a fly in the ointment,” Mr. Cullen said. “I want him to be a skunk in the garden party. I think it is badly needed. There have been so few profiles in courage in the party.”

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