WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, repeated his concerns Thursday that a breakdown of civility in politics has led to gridlock and, in extreme cases, attacks like those on former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and Rep. Steve Scalise in June.
Flake’s comments at the “Washington Ideas” forum came just hours after Scalise returned to the Capitol for the first time since being shot during a charity baseball game practice, by a gunman targeting Republicans because he was angry at President Donald Trump.
Scalise walked into the House chamber leaning on two canes to receive a standing ovation from lawmakers – including Flake, who had been on the field in June when the Louisiana Republican was shot.
Flake said Thursday that the shooting reflects the political culture in America.
“How can somebody, a shooter, look at a bunch of middle-aged men playing baseball, and see the enemy?” Flake asked. “And that, I think, kind of encapsulates the issue of the times that we’re in – where too many people look at somebody with whom they have a political difference and see the enemy.”
He was speaking at Washington Ideas, an annual forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic magazine, brings together lawmakers from both parties, as well as CEOs, scientists and filmmakers for two days of talks.
For Flake, the discussion repeated many of the themes he raised in his recent book, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” He said that like former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, who wrote the original “Conscience of a Conservative” in 1960, he sees his party heading in a worrisome direction.
“Today, it’s been compromised by isolationism, by anti-immigration and nativism,” Flake said, also criticizing the trend towards populism. “It’s called populism for a reason; because it’s popular, but it’s not a governing philosophy.”
Flake said that while his party has contributed to the breakdown of civil order, it is a bipartisan problem that will need a bipartisan solution.
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He referred to then-President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address when a Republican member of the House shouted “you lie” during the speech. But Flake said that “then people returned the favor and there have been some very unflattering things said about this president said by the other side of the aisle …. On all sides, it’s got to tone down it really does.”
While Flake has been criticized by Trump supporters for not toeing the president’s agenda on issues like immigration, he has also supported the president in other areas, crediting him for attracting qualified people to his Cabinet, for example. But Flake added that he tries to give deference to every president in regards to their nominees.
“Where I differed with the president was on trade issues, those things haven’t come to a vote yet, or the Muslim ban that was talked about during the campaign has now morphed into a travel ban – those disagreements haven’t been legislative,” he said.
Flake also spoke about growing up on a farm, working next to immigrants.
“I’ve never been able to look at those who come across the border to try and feed their families and try to make their life better and see a criminal class,” he said, a reference to Trump’s tough talk on immigration.
In response to questions about Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore – who has said that Rep. Keith Ellison, D- Minnesota, should not be allowed in Congress because he is a Muslim – Flake said the party has to be united in its stand against religious tests. He also said the party needs to distance itself from conspiracy theories, invoking Trump’s long-running claim that Obama was not born in the U.S.
“I think Republicans as a body should have been a lot more forceful … when that ugly conspiracy theory about the president’s birthplace came up,” Flake said. “And that doesn’t speak well for us as a party that we allowed that to go on.”