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Is this the moment that changed Senator Jeff Flake's mind?

Two sexual assault survivors confronted Flake after he said he'd vote "yes" on Kavanaugh. Hours later, he changed his mind. The Lead panel discusses.

Posted: Sep 30, 2018 11:48 AM
Updated: Sep 30, 2018 12:08 PM

Over the last two years, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has been the craggy, hapless, equivocating face of Never Trump Republicans. He has repeatedly declared that "There are times when you have to stand up and say, 'I'm sorry, this is wrong,'" Yet when it comes to actually taking action to rein in President Donald Trump -- by, for example, demanding that the Senate pass resolutions to protect the Mueller investigation -- Flake has done nothing.

But today, finally, he did something. After agreeing to vote Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh out of the Judiciary Committee, Flake added a caveat. He asked for a week-long FBI investigation into outstanding allegations against Brett Kavanaugh before he would guarantee to vote yes on the nominee on the Senate floor. Trump has now ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation to "update Judge Kavanaugh's file," as he said in a statement, and the Senate vote has been delayed.

Many will say that Flake should have done more. And he certainly should have. Multiple women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault; in his testimony he lied repeatedly, insulted senators, spewed conspiracy theories, and generally showed himself unfit to be on the court. Flake hasn't even promised to vote "no" if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decides to hold a vote immediately. He's done the bare minimum to even approach decency. Kavanaugh may still end up on the court; Flake may still vote for him.

Still, the bare minimum is, by definition, slightly more than nothing. And it's worth remembering that Flake has done slightly more than nothing a couple of times in the past too -- especially when faced with issues of sexual violence and assault. When Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore was accused by a series of women of sexually assaulting them when they were underage, Flake didn't just denounce him. He became the only prominent Republican to openly endorse Moore's opponent, Doug Jones. He even contributed to Jones' campaign.

Similarly, when Christine Blasey Ford came forward to say that Kavanaugh had assaulted her at a party when he was 17 and she was 15, Flake took meaningful action. He insisted that the Judiciary Committee, on which he is a Republican swing vote, should hear her testimony. That's a major reason why there were hearings. Without Flake, Kavanaugh would probably already be on the court.

The consensus on the left is clear: Jeff Flake is awful. And that consensus is mostly right. But Flake is very occasionally not completely awful, and we should recognize that on strategic grounds, if nothing else, as politicians and activists on the blue side grapple against the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and the Trump agenda in the shadow of the midterm elections. It's worth it for a couple of reasons.

First, Flake, and other Republicans queasy about Trump, do have some power (as Flake has demonstrated in calling for hearings and an investigation). Ideally, they would use that power for good. They don't do that very often, but when they do, they should be encouraged, to the extent that's possible. Dissension among Republicans in power can signal GOP partisans that it's okay to take positions against Trump or against McConnell. The lack of enthusiasm from people like Flake may be part of why Kavanaugh is one of the least popular Supreme Court nominees in history. Perhaps, if Flake's good actions get enough positive attention, other Republicans might follow his lead. It's not likely. But Democrats winning a Senate election in Alabama wasn't likely either.

The second reason to highlight Flake's dissents, when they happen, is that they're a reminder that Republicans are not unstoppable. The last few years have been very bleak. It's easy to see the slide into an America many of us find hard to recognize as inevitable and irreversible.

But Flake's actions, pallid as they have been, don't signal a strong party. Senators simply do not endorse candidates from the opposite party, as a rule. Nor do they stall their own President's Supreme Court pick.

Commentators and pundits love to say that Democrats are unable to win elections or push for their values and programs. Often these criticisms are justified. But it's worth remembering that Trump has bitterly divided the Republican Party in many ways, too, and that that division provides Democrats and the left with some openings.

Republican disarray is a big part of the reason Democrats have been so successful in special elections this year; it's a big part of the reason that Democrats are in a good position to retake the House in November.

Flake's wavering stance is good because it may help to keep a man credibly accused of sexual assault off the Supreme Court. But the wavering stance is also valuable because of its wavering. Republicans are not unified, remorseless, and undefeatable. Flake is hardly the beacon of moral courage he likes to portray himself as. But, almost despite himself, his vacillations may offer some small reason for hope.

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