GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — In an appearance that inevitably stoked chatter about a potential run for president, US Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona cast himself as a reasonable Republican Monday night as he lamented the “tribalism” of Washington and called for a return to civility and compromise.
Flake, who is not running for reelection to the Senate, came to New Hampshire to speak at an event scheduled before he became central to the dramatic events unfolding in Washington.
Flake has become a key figure in the battle over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s increasingly fraught Supreme Court nomination. On Friday he delayed the confirmation process with a last-minute call for an FBI investigation into the allegations of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school.
“If the past week has taught me anything, it is that this country is hungry for us to work together again on their behalf,” Flake told a crowd of 200 at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, weaving the events of last week into a larger narrative about the state of the country.
His speech followed an appearance in Boston earlier in the day.
Despite brief mentions of the Kavanaugh hearings, however, Flake’s speech focused primarily American politics writ large.
“We Republicans have given into the terrible tribal impulse that first mistakes our opponents for our enemies, and then we become seized with a conviction that we must destroy that enemy,” Flake said. “Not only are we not enemies, we are each vital organs of the same body.”
“It is as if in order to save ourselves, our brains decide to destroy our hearts,” he said.
Flake, 55, joined the Senate in 2013 after serving six terms in the House. This is his second trip this year to New Hampshire, the state with the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Asked directly about his presidential ambitions by reporters after the speech, Flake demurred.
“I’m not really thinking of that — there’s too much going on in Washington now,” he said. “I still have three months in office. I’m working on that,” he said.
Flake began his speech with poetic nostalgia for the Republican Party under President Ronald Reagan, when, he said ‘we were the sum of our goodness, not our gripes.”
He called the present situation a “deluge of our own creation,” and said “the only way we will get through this period is by being honest about it.”
Flake did not address President Trump directly or criticize him specifically, but hinted at his rhetoric and style.
“If you want to make America great as an elected official, be humble, conduct yourself in good faith, and when necessary, compromise to find solutions,” he said.
The speech seemed aimed at moderates and Republicans who are frustrated with the president. Flake said it is possible to be reasonable and considerate and also a conservative Republican at the same time.
He said promoting compromise does not mean he would abandon his principles for “soft, middle-of-the-road” ideas. He went to Washington to shrink the size and scope of the government, he said.
On Thursday, the day Ford and Kavanaugh both testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Flake gave a speech urging senators to keep an open mind about the testimony.
Flake said giving that speech was like dipping his toe in a pool of piranhas, because it enraged both the left and the right, for different reasons. But he said it is an example of how he is willing to say and do what he believes is right, regardless of the backlash.
Many also believe Flake’s move could sway moderate Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins to vote against Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Flake urged his audience to “step out of your tribe.” Do something, he said, that “our current tribal rules simply don’t allow.”
After the speech Flake did not take questions from the audience, as is customary, but did answer questions from a scrum of reporters.
Flake said his decision on whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed rests on whether the FBI finds the judge lied in his testimony and whether it turns up evidence to corroborate Ford’s story.
“I have an open mind on this,” he said.
Outside the event about 50 people protested Kavanaugh before the speech, holding signs and chanting.
Sonia Prince, from Nashua, said she has three children and is worried about how decisions that Kavanaugh might weigh in on as a Supreme Court justice would affect them.
“I’m just tired of men ruling the world,” said Prince.
Many protesters wore knit pink hats from the women’s marches held across the country to protest Trump on the day after he was inaugurated in 2016. Many who held signs said their faith is in Flake as well as Murkowski and Collins to vote against Kavanaugh.
“I’m hopeful they have a soul and they remember other women,” Prince said.
Mary Murray, a retired woman from Goffstown who said she is a survivor of sexual assault, said it was hard to watch the proceedings in Washington on Thursday and Friday. She said she is grateful Flake called for the investigation but worried the FBI will not do a thorough job.
“I have no faith in the government at this point. That’s sad,” said Murray, 61.
Many women said they are too angry to stay home any longer.
“I’m infuriated,” said Amy Hathaway, 53, of Keene. “Every politician, Flake and others, needs to know that we are here, we are paying attention, we are smart and we are not going away.”