Tom Perez Misses the Point
On Tuesday, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake gave a speech on the floor of the Senate that is sure to become one of the most cited and historically important early rebukes of the Trump administration. Flake, a Republican, decried the President for how his administration has dissolved responsible discourse, set a tone of juvenile coarseness, and led this country into further disunion. He also lamented the loss of shared values and the convictions of his party—saying that the principles and beliefs that once led him to the Republican Party have been cast away and were being replaced with naïve populism, anger, and grievance.
The speech was an impassioned cry for a return to normalcy and a plea to not allow political considerations to get in the way of doing what needs to be done. Winning elections should not be put ahead of preserving our Constitutional principles.
Almost everyone steeped in politics had a reaction to this speech—some shocked or amazed, some impressed that he had spoken out, and some angry that he was not doing more. But no response seemed as tonally off or as inappropriate as that of Democratic National Convention Chairman Tom Perez.
Perez, who has been a staunch and fervent opponent of the President and his purposed policies, chose to lash out at Senator Flake in a statement published soon after the speech. The first half reads:
“Senator Flake voted with Donald Trump 91 percent of the time. His retirement is symbol of a Republican Party whose leaders allow Donald Trump’s divisive politics to flourish as long as it serves their political interests, and who fail to criticize this dangerous president until it’s too late. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress remain lockstep with the Trump agenda and silent in the face of the president disgraceful behavior”
The second half of the statement goes on about how the people of Arizona don’t need another bad Republican, and it ends by saying that Democrats will fight for them. With this response, it seems almost as if Tom Perez didn’t even pay attention to the speech that he is criticizing. Take for example the last sentence in the paragraph above. Perez is responding to a Republican who just minutes ago had broken lockstep and spoken out against the president’s behavior. Perez immediately allows political considerations to stop him from admitting what Senator Flake did was right. Not to mention the fact that his response ignores several key factors that Democrats need to be aware of.
If Democrats want to be mature in their opposition to Trump and his administration, they need to begin distinguishing between conservative Republicans and Trump loyalists. On paper, the allegation that Flake voted for conservative polices is correct; but to say he has voted “With Donald Trump” is a complete mischaracterization of his record well before the election. Senators like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, among others, have voted “with Trump” not because they agree with the actions or spirt of the President. They voted that way because, in the end, they are still conservative republicans. It is only natural to expect them to vote for conservative polices put forward by conservative leadership in Congress.
This constant refrain coming from the left of Trump opponents still voting “with Trump” is a trend that needs to end. It implies that the President has had an active role in pushing for policy or legislation, which he has not. It gives his position in these debates far too much power. It also implies that Trump has a handle on any of the legislation being put forward in Congress, which he doesn’t. For instance, Donald Trump doesn’t have the faintest idea what the provisions are in “his” healthcare bill that Senator Flake voted for; he is, in fact, so clueless that his opinions on how that legislation should be crafted change with every passing breeze. Secondly, this constant refrain ignores the real problem which this country is facing. Democrats and Republicans are free to go back to debating tax policy just as soon as the crisis threatening to trample over our constitutional principles and unifying American ideals is taken care of. But until that day, Democrats should be happy to work with anyone who wants to oppose this administration and fix the basic structural problems in our politics which has led to so much disunity and destruction of bipartisan values.
Conservative republicans vote for conservative policies pushed by conservative leadership; but they don’t vote for Trumpism. A conservative healthcare bill is bad policy, but it is not Trumpism, Roy Moore is Trumpism. Anti-globalism is Trumpism. Angry populism and white grievance politics—those things are Trumpism, and Jeff Flake has resoundingly rejected all of those at every given opportunity.
The second half Tom Perez’s statement calls out senate leaders who are allowing Donald Trump’s “divisive politics” to flourish “as long as it serves their political interests.” The irony of the DNC Chair criticizing a Senator who just spoke out against divisive politics by citing people who divide in order to serve their political agenda is almost too much to bare. Time and time again in his address, Jeff Flake reaffirms that he is taking a stand against the administration independent of his political consideration. On the other hand, in making this statement Perez is only thinking of his political base. He is acting out the exact same of divisive politics that Jeff Flake is warning against.
Flake cites “political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.” How many of his own principles, Democratic principles, has Perez sacrificed by being too stubborn to embrace a natural ally in the Democrats number one electoral framing? The out of bounds behavior of the executive branch has become the mainstay of Democratic campaigning and yet when someone from the other party stands up to full throatily agree with you, they are shut down and blamed for the very problems they’re attacking.
We learned on Wednesday that Joe Straus, the moderate Republican who serves as the Speaker of the House in Texas, is retiring. Straus was the hero in a recent essay written by Lawrence Wright that explained the deep dysfunction of the Texas legislature. Straus stood atop the barricades holding back the more radical fringes from passing all manner of extreme laws through the state house, while at the same time passing real reforms which helped better the lives of people in that state. He did all of this through compromise, bipartisanship, and real effective governing. In a more moderate state than Texas, Joe Straus would have been a conservative Democrat, and yet when he announced his retirement there was no shortage of those on the left either celebrating the demise of another Republican or calling him a coward for not standing up and continuing the moderate fight.
Democrats should be sympathetic to those moderates who are being thrown out of government by the radical fringe—those politicians who are warning of the coming wave of radicals from the inside. You may not agree with either Jeff Flake or Bob Corker or Joe Straus on every issue; but Democrats should be able to recognize allies when they present themselves and those allies should be roundly embraced. There must be a separation. There must be a world in which debates over policy can be had; but common principles and aspirations are agreed on and bring people together. If the common bonds that divide us fully break than the forces of Trumpism, the forces of angry populism, irrationality, and anti-governance will flood in to that gapand take over.
It’s not hard to see a world where the DNC’s response to Flake’s speech could have been one of acceptance, thankfulness, and resolve—one where the minority party found common ground with those who spoke out in agreement with them. Tom Perez would come to the podium with a smile and said:
“We are happy to hear Senator Flake speak out against the divisive and harmful behavior of our president, a member of his own party. We thank him for his comments and hope to work with him on these issues for the remainder of his service. In the meantime, we are committed to running a strong race in Arizona to fill his seat with a Democrat who shares those same values.”
Unfortunately, Tom Perez chose to instead embrace they very same divisiveness and appeal to the base that Flake warned against—sending a message of opposition against all Republicans instead of a message of unity in opposition to this administration.
Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.