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Senator Jeff Flake’s recent announcement not to run for reelection is getting a lot of attention for the starkly anti-Trump message he’s paired with it. His approach pleases the Republican establishment that is uneasy with the president but unwilling to speak out about him. His opposition to the president also allows for those on the left to claim the president’s support is fracturing even among his party base. These takes are premature, for a few reasons.
Who is criticizing the president matters
Senator Flake is one of only a handful of Republican congressmen to openly oppose Trump and question his suitability for office. However opposed Republican politicians appeared to be to Trump during the primary, since the campaign, they have coalesced around him. Trump’s objectionable positions and tirades have done nothing to dampen the silence that has characterized the Republican method of dealing with him.
That silence is the determining factor for the continuity of the Trump administration. Republicans converge on the prospect of getting their agenda enacted by virtue of the president belonging to the same party. They believe, rightfully, that should they manage to pass legislation, he will sign it. Because the Democrats are expected to oppose Republican legislation, in the annals of power, their resistance matters little for the survival of the White House.
Republicans are strongly united
Republican support for, or lack of opposition to, Trump has been remarkably strong since the start of the legislative term. Any vocal opposition to the extremist theatrics Trump puts on has been met with a resounding, unified vote on all issues put forward. From government appointments to legislation itself, Republican dissent has been largely absent from this term. With such a qualitatively unified party, any critical opposition stands out.
We can point to moments where handfuls of Republicans have voted down crucial legislation, such as with the ACA repeal attempts. In each instance, Republicans’ desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act has been derailed by a trio of senators consistently critical of the legislation, its effects, or even the process. These senators are seen as being more generally willing to contradict Trump and hold firm against his less popular proposals. Yet there are for any issue, at most, six senators standing in the way of smooth passage.
Critical majority voices need to hold office to count
Senator Flake has not, per his voting record, been one of the strongest Republican deniers of the Trump agenda. Yet in announcing that he will not seek reelection, he has struck a sharper tone toward the president. Although votes matter most as a qualitative measure of how the majority party decides what issues are most important, the political agenda is still largely set by the president. That is why, even without many opposing votes, criticism and dissent from within the majority party is so important.
However, for critical Republican voices to be heard and to shape the Trump administration’s agenda, they must be represented among their ranks. Evidently, not seeking reelection frees the binds of running campaigns that could see words be twisted around. Flake appeared to have been a weak candidate against primary and general campaign challengers. Other retiring senators have similar motives, if not their health.
Yet the freedom to speak up and express discontent in a place where that cuts against the legislative agenda ought not to be relegated only to those who have nothing left to lose politically. In the face of extremity, the primary check on influence are the dissenting voices among the ranks of those in power. Those sorts of voices are needed now, and they will be needed after 2018, when the next legislature will be constituted.
Without their voices, the Republican party runs the risk of turning itself over fully to the most extreme elements within it. If no Republican voices end up left to criticize and critique him, Trump will have gained full legitimation of his political agenda. That is an unacceptable prospect.