A pair of Republican senators this week ripped President Donald Trump and earned one of the most coveted adjectives in Washington — courageous.
Noah Rothman wrote approvingly in Commentary magazine of a “burst of courage among Trump-skeptical Republicans” in the wake of a caustically anti-Trump interview Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) gave to CNN and a speech delivered in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, compared Flake and Corker to the politicians highlighted in former President John F. Kennedy’s book “Profiles in Courage.”
“If they use their time well, they will deserve a new chapter in “Profiles in Courage,” John F. Kennedy’s book about senators who suffered criticism and electoral losses after taking a stand on principle,” he wrote.
Forbes columnist John Baldoni wrote that “History is populated by good men and women who believed in the courage of their convictions and exercised them, even when it cost them dearly.”
People can agree or disagree with the substance of what Flake and Corker said, of course, but critics contend it is a stretch to describe it as brave. Both men have announced they will not run for re-election. They never will have to face the judgment of Republican voters.
“I don’t see what’s courageous,” said David Bozell, president of the conservative activist group ForAmerica.
Bozell said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) routinely alleges that thousands of people will die if Republican health care reform — which Flake and Corker both support — becomes law.
“And these two gentlemen never say a word to counter that narrative,” he said.
Mark Meckler, president of Citizens for Self-Governance, also said Corker and Flake do not deserve credit for bravery.
“The only thing that I would do is laugh at the people who say they’re courageous,” he said. “These are the same people we’ve been trying to run out of the party for years.”
Christopher Devine, a political science professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said Flake — assuming he had not planned all along to step down after a single term — did take a political risk by criticizing Trump as far back as last year’s election campaign. But he added that Flake had nothing to lose when he delivered that blistering speech Tuesday.
Flake decided to leave office at a time that polls show him trailing Republican challenger Kelli Ward by double digits.
“It seems, at this point, the most courageous thing would be to contest the election and see where the Republican Party really is,” Devine said.
Corker showed even less courage, keeping his mouth shut until after he decided not to run again, Devine said.
Flake made the rounds on cable TV shows Wednesday morning, complaining that he could not win a Republican primary — despite a generally conservative voting record — while criticizing the president’s conduct.
“Well, I can tell you that it’s very difficult to be re-elected in the Republican Party right now, in Arizona in particular,” he said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Anchor Alisyn Camerota asked Flake if not running amounted to surrender.
“You know, it’s tough. I’m competitive. I like to fight these battles,” he said. “But I also knew that I couldn’t run the kind of race that I would be proud of and win in the Republican primary at this time.”
Flake repeated his explanation on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“Well, the bottom line is if I were to run a campaign that I could be proud of and where I didn’t have to cozy up to the president and his positions or his behavior, I could not win in a Republican primary,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) pushed back on the same show at suggestions that Flake was being run out of office.
“Well, first of all, I want to be clear that Jeff Flake is not being run out of the Congress … He made a decision not to run again, and I respect that,” he said.
Even some progressives who love the internal strife inside the GOP acknowledge that criticizing Trump on the way out of office is not especially brave.
“America does not need Flake’s courageous retirement,” Vox founder Ezra Klein wrote. “It needs his courageous re-election campaign.”