Former U.S. Senator Jeff Flake came to Utah State University Monday afternoon to speak about Polarizing Partisanship in the federal government.
Flake said that any gesture of kindness he showed toward the Democratic Party was met with vitriol from his peers on the Republican side.
He referenced a photograph of him, standing and applauding President Obama, with colleague Gabby Gifford, a Democrat who was shot in the head in Tucson, AZ. He said as a gesture of kindness, he sat next to her to help her in and out of her seat because she couldn’t do it by herself. No one saw it as a token of kindness, they saw him supporting Obama. For that he was criticized by some in the press and many from the Republican Party.
“We have shattered our politics when polarizing partisanship has taken over,” he said. “Politics that says that you are not only wrong if you are on the other side of the aisle, but you are the enemy.”
“Why is it so difficult for Republicans and Democrats to come to a compromise?” he asked.
Sen. Flake said he tried some rather extreme efforts to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
In 2014, Sen. Flake invited Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, to participate in a survival adventure on one of the deserted islands in the Marshall Islands. He also invited a television crew from the Discovery Channel to document the experience. They were there for six days and six nights. The title of the television special was “Rival Survival.”
The Discovery Channel news release said, “The bipartisan duo, who had to live on limited resources, were surrounded by shark infested waters that mirror the seemingly treacherous terrain of the U.S. Congress.”
“We wanted to prove that we could get along,” Flake said. “All we had was a machete between us.”
Flake said every once and a while, one can see a person in the political crossover on a good cause. Flake said during Mike Pompeo’s confirmation for Secretary of State, the Foreign Relations committee votes were straight down political lines. Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson was attending a funeral and couldn’t be there for the vote. In a rare gesture, Delaware Senator Chris Coons paired his vote from no to present, allowing Isakson to not be penalized for being at the funeral. Coons openly opposed Pompeo’s nomination. Committee Chairman Bob Corker was moved to tears because of the act of kindness.
“I decided, in the fall of 2017, I would not to run for reelection. I felt I couldn’t run the kind of race I wanted to run,” Flake said. “l would have to agree with positions I didn’t agree with, or condone behaviors I simply couldn’t condone.”
He said it shouldn’t have to be this way. One shouldn’t have to leave Congress to escape the weight, or the burden, of the partisan atmosphere.
“We are in a wonderful country with a great system. We will be ourselves again at one point,” he said. “Our responsibility as elected officials is to put country above party, to look for opportunities to reach across the aisle, to recognize that your political opponents are not your enemies, they may disagree with you, but they are not your enemy.”
He encouraged the audience to support good candidates, and to support those who recognize that those on the other side of the aisle are not enemies; they are simply a political opponent, someone with a different opinion.
Flake announced his new venture with CBS, in which he will search the country for situations where political parties work together to find common ground and pass meaningful legislation.