This situation didn’t come out of nowhere. Over the past few decades, our political culture has corroded. Traditions of compromise and civility have given way to a zero-sum, winner-take-all approach that is now out of control. As Mr. Flake said on the Senate floor Tuesday, “Anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.”
Unfortunately, Jeff Flake is only the latest example of a Republican whose willingness to speak out against his party’s current standard-bearer has cost him politically.
The president has spent weeks impugning Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for pointing out that the Mr. Trump is “debasing” the nation. Mr. Trump, as a candidate and as president, has also repeatedly and viciously attacked Senator John McCain, a war hero who has sacrificed more for the United States than most of us can even imagine.
Republican leaders have offered occasional defenses of their colleagues from these attacks: Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, called Mr. Flake “a very fine man” of “high principles” on Tuesday. But they have largely remained on the sidelines as Mr. Trump and his allies have attacked those few Republicans who have dared to call for civility and compromise.
The consequences of this could be grave.
If the Republican Party under Donald Trump has no room for independent-minded conservatives, and if, in the coming years, senators like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are replaced by fringe conservatives handpicked because of their blind loyalty to this president, it will be too late for responsible conservatives to salvage the party they’ve built over generations.
As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I’m particularly worried by the prospect of Mr. Trump’s narrow, nationalist “America First” foreign policy replacing the vision of lawmakers like Mr. McCain, Mr. Corker and Mr. Flake who have pushed for strong American global leadership based on human rights, the rule of law and strong international agreements. I sincerely hope that Republican leaders recognize this before it’s too late.
As for Democrats, there should be no sense of satisfaction in what is happening to the Republican Party. The balance of two functioning political parties has been essential to our country’s success. In fact, we should take this moment to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask: How much do our own party’s internal battles resemble the fight happening within the Republican Party? As Democrats call for independence and pragmatism from Republicans, we should be asking ourselves how tolerant we are of dissent within our own party and how much we are really willing to reach across the aisle.
Senator Flake finished his remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday by quoting Abraham Lincoln, who reminded Americans on the eve of the Civil War that “we are not enemies, but friends” and “though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Mr. Flake wisely warned Republicans and Democrats that our bonds are dangerously strained. Now is the time to ensure they don’t break.
In a closely divided Senate, three of my Republican colleagues have made risky, unpopular decisions to speak out about the precarious state of their party and the country. We should heed their warnings, challenge them to turn their words into action and ask how we can do the same.