Searching for real Republican leaders

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., accompanied by his wife Cheryl, leaves the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, after announcing he won't seek re-election in 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Sen. Jeff Flake, accompanied by his wife Cheryl, leaves the Capitol on Tuesday after announcing he won't seek re-election in 2018.

There are people with courage and convictions in the Republican Party. And then there are the GOP’s congressional leaders. And judging from recent events, never the twain shall meet.

Here’s the irony: Even as President Donald Trump blames them for inaction, even as he tosses matters like the Iran deal and DACA into their lap to resolve, Republican congressional panjandrums shrink from the role of genuine leaders of a coequal branch of government when it comes to speaking out on the president’s demagogic, dysfunctional, dishonest governance.

In the Senate, the Republicans with Courage caucus would be a small group indeed. Senator John McCain, who has regularly voiced his concerns about Trump, stepped up that criticism in recent weeks, denouncing “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Maine’s Susan Collins has made known her distress with Trump’s modus operandi, as has Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. McCain pal Lindsey Graham was once a pointed critic, but he has put his concerns about Trump on hold while he works to pass a Trojan Horse “tax reform” bill.


Then there are the two senators generating party-jolting headlines recently by speaking truth to and about power. Bob Corker of Tennessee, an erstwhile Trump supporter, has become a withering critic, calling Trump “utterly untruthful,” charging that the president is “debasing” the United States, and worrying that he could put this country “on the path to World War III.”

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On Tuesday, Arizona’s Jeff Flake called Trump out in an extraordinary cry of conscience on the Senate floor.

“It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” said Flake, adding: “We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country: the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”

Now, it’s true that, since Corker and Flake have both decided against running for reelection, their remarks have some aspects of a Parthian shot. Still, contrast their willingness to beard the lying — um, lion — with the postures of Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, which fairly define a meek acceptance of Trump’s daily sundering of our country.

On occasion you get a muted cover-your-tail comment about this controversy or that, but for the most part, the two “leaders” are perfectly willing to let Trump use them for his all-is-well photo ops and meetings.


McConnell will vouch for the character of (some of) the senators offering the indictment of Trump, but won’t comment on the concerns they raise about the president. Not his role, at least not as he sees it. “What I have an obligation to do is to try to achieve the greatest cohesion I can among 52 [Senate] Republicans,” McConnell said this week. He’ll fight a proxy war with Trump’s hired gun Steve Bannon, but won’t publicly rebuke the president.

Ryan joked at the recent Al Smith dinner about the problems that Trump’s disruptive style has created for him. But when it comes to his official role, his general stance is to duck and dodge.

“All this stuff you see on a daily basis, Twitter this and Twitter that, forget about it,” he said this week. (Give the dubious prize for that kind of avoidance to Senator James Risch, who demonstrated such a lack of backbone during a recent CNN appearance as to leave one marveling that he managed to stay upright in his chair.)

As with any bully, truckling to Trump only encourages him. A bully needs to be confronted; his abusive tendencies grow when he’s not. And the putative GOP leaders shrink when they comport themselves like a colony of church mice. Abase yourself that way and you sacrifice your stature and your suasion — and at this point, neither Ryan nor McConnell has any to spare.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.