Over the past few years, Vanderbilt and its student organizations have attracted countless distinguished speakers. Few, however, were so generous with their time on campus as former Senator Jeff Flake, who spent much of January 17th interviewing with student journalists, addressing political science classrooms, and speaking at this semester’s first Chancellor’s lecture. I appreciate that the former Senator took so much time to exchange words with our campus community. As the protesters outside of Langford Auditorium pointed out on that chilly Thursday night, however, Flake’s measured words do not always reflect his actions or his voting record. They do afford us the opportunity to reflect upon American political discourse in the age of Trump, especially with respect to bipartisanship and civility.
Throughout his day on campus, Flake expressed a yearning for the bipartisanship of the Obama and Bush years. As the Tennessean’s Mariah Timms put it, Flake’s lamentations of polarization under President Trump hearken back to a “golden age of politics” in which policymakers respected each other as colleagues and came together to solve problems of common concern.
Search your memory for the “golden age” of bipartisanship in America. You may struggle to recall such a time, perhaps because memories of bitter political fights like the battle over the 2009 passage of the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, loom large. Sarah Palin claimed that the law would allow “death panels” of government bureaucrats to decide whether certain patients were worthy of life saving medical care. Conservative media helped spread the death panel rumor like wildfire, and Republican lawmakers like Chuck Grassley (R-IA) echoed Palin’s claims. Fact checkers debunked the rumor, but it had already cemented the bill’s unpopularity among many conservative voters. Congressional Democrats, for their part, did not conduct the amendment process of the Affordable Care Act as transparently as they should have, and zero Republicans supported the bill during the final vote.
The demise of bipartisanship, however, began years before the Affordable Care Act and decades before President Trump’s first tweet storm. In the 1980s and 1990s, GOP Congressman Newt Gingrich led his party in pioneering a devastating rhetorical strategy. Escalating partisan rancor to new heights, he framed politics as a war which had to be fought “with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.” Gingrich’s followers even distributed a list of focus group-tested words that Republican candidates could weaponize against Democrats, like “sick,” “pathetic,” and “traitor.” With the help of this strategy in the 1994 elections, Republicans ended the Democrats’ 40-year long control of the House of Representatives, and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House.
Gingrich brought his warlike philosophy from the campaign trail into the halls of Congress, whose older members were used to a much more collegial culture of policymaking. His insistence on spending cuts to social welfare programs brought him into conflict with President Clinton, resulting in two government shutdowns. The second shutdown lasted for 21 days, a duration surpassed only by our current shutdown. On another occasion, Gingrich attempted to withhold disaster relief funds for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to force Clinton to agree to spending cuts. Many observers argue that bipartisanship has never recovered from these contentious years.
During the conversation in Langford, Jeff Flake glossed over some of this history as he explained the roots of the government’s current budgetary impasse. He called upon congress to reign in entitlement spending to avoid future shutdowns, and he warned of America’s rising “debt-to-GDP ratio.” To begin the difficult conversations on these matters, Flake argued, government must return to the civility of years past, when it was “unthinkable” for political opponents to call each other “losers or clowns” as Trump does today.
Statements like these are why the protestors outside Langford accused Flake of hypocrisy. It was his party that escalated partisan name-calling and obstruction in the 1990s. It was under the guise of his conservative ideology that Newt Gingrich launched a political “civil war,” in which the opposing party consisted of “traitors.” While Flake was not in congress during the Gingrich revolution, his weak analysis of our government’s disfunction masks his party’s hand in debasing our political culture. He chooses to scapegoat Trump’s tweets and “entitlement spending” as the primary impediments to progress.
Even worse, Flake’s own actions in the Senate render his words hollow. Flake voted for the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, will add nearly two trillion dollars to the federal debt by 2027. Setting aside the fact that most of the benefits of the tax cut accrue to the rich, Flake’s vote flies in the face of fiscal conservatism. Moreover, Flake’s record in Congress belies his professed love of bipartisanship: The Lugar Center’s lifetime bipartisanship rankings place Flake near the bottom of all Senators since 1993.
To what state of political discourse, then, would Jeff Flake like to return? Bipartisanship was nearly dead before Flake ever took office, and once he did, he did little to revive it. Perhaps Flake would be content for the GOP to continue passing fiscally disastrous policies on party-line votes, as long as President Trump tweeted less. If only we could be more civil about gutting the social safety net, we could return to normalcy.
To undertake a thorough discussion of civility in today’s politics is beyond the scope of this piece. Let it suffice to say that civility without integrity is worthless. If we wish to restore the quality of our national dialogue, we must look beyond the thin veneer of civility and hold our leaders accountable for their promises, principles, and statements.