Remove the electoral horizon from a Republican member of the United States Senate these days and the result is an astonishing ocular descaling. With no next election occupying the majority of their visual field such legislators are finally free to take a clear-eyed look around them. As Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain are making abundantly clear, they don’t like what they see.
Because of voluntary retirement (Flake and Corker) or serious health issues (McCain), this trio is in the unusual position of not giving a hoot about the alt-right persecution platoons flitting through the fevered primary nightmares of their elected GOP brethren. Nor do they have to fear a 140-character Trump dump flushing their political careers down the Fox hole. They no longer have to worry about looking good to the right donors or the right special interest groups.
With their political peepers released from the need for the constant short-term vigilance on anything that might affect their chances in the next election, they’re staring hard at something else: Their own political party. And, ouchie-mama, if you believe these guys, things ain’t looking good.
In the past week or two, they’ve certainly not been shy about reporting the perspective from their own-side eyeballing. The report basically boils down to this: “Hey, has anyone noticed? Our party just got a louche, unqualified bully elected president! We’re piddling on principle in our pursuit of power! We’re pushing half-baked policies with fibs and fabulation! Has anyone else noticed how surly and loutish we’ve become?” I’m paraphrasing, of course. But this is the general sentiment emanating from Flake’s extraordinary denunciation of his president (and party) from the Senate floor, Corker’s ongoing campaign of I-call-bull on the Donald and his inept minions, and McCain’s full-throated condemnation of the cockeyed populism hijacking the GOP.
Reactions to this have been mixed. The White House is in full there is no-way-they-can-see-the-emperor’s-unmentionables-through-so-many-layers-of-clothing mode. Democrats and lefties have suddenly rediscovered their respect for principled conservatives, making much noise about honorable men elevating values and comity over partisan point scoring. GOP colleagues in the Senate have mostly been silent, which can only be interpreted as “we can see the emperor’s junk clear as day, but we’re keeping mum in hopes of keeping our jobs, kudos to you guys for saying what we’re all thinking.”
Well, fair enough. Agree or disagree with them, not many these days have the onions to proclaim that their own side is two turnips short a full measure of root vegetables. Yet before anyone gets too misty eyed about the Mr. Smith goes to Washington performances or too choleric about their turncoat tirades (and, let’s face it, your perspective matters here), it is worth taking a look at how their actions correlate with their words. News flash: the concordance is pretty itty-bitty.
The curtain call caucus might lay a lot of harsh words on the president, but where the support of a senator really matters—the yea and nay of legislation—they’re all pretty rock solid Trump guys. FiveThirtyEight keeps a running tally of support of the administration’s legislative agenda in both chambers of Congress, and by that measure Flake, McCain and Corker are high-level yes men. Flake—the hero du jour of the anti-Trump GOP wing—votes with the administration 90 percent of the time. Corker clocks in with 86 percent support and McCain is at 84 percent. The words may be all maverick-y, but those voting records look pretty party line.
The scruples trio, for example, have all expressed disappointment in one way or another with the competence—specifically, the lack thereof—of the Trump administration. Yet they helped put it in place. Confirm someone as a department head who reveals at her hearing she’s innocent of even the basic details of her agency’s policy portfolio? How about someone who doesn’t seem to know exactly what his agency does? Or someone who knows the legal mandate of his agency and has vowed to torpedo it from within? The three principled amigos all voted for Betsy DeVos (Education) and Rick Perry (Energy), Flake and Corker both voted for Tom Pruitt (EPA), and McCain probably would have joined them if he’d cast a vote that dy. Excuse me if I take these guys’ anguished hand-wringing over the government’s ineptitude with a healthy pinch of salt.
And where these guys have broken with the Trump administration, it’s hard to see any high falutin’ principle-over-politics motivation. Flake and Corker bucked the Trump administration to vote against disaster relief for Puerto Rico, a piece of legislation that passed with a large bipartisan majorities. They also voted against raising the debt limit and extending relief for Hurricane Harvey, which was supported not just by the White House but pretty much all the grownups on both sides of the aisle.
McCain actually did cast one big vote that bucked the president and his party—he voted against the hot mess of the Obamacare repeal legislation. And, fair enough, that really was a big stand and a big deal. The GOP and Trump really felt that, and even if the bill in question was truly awful (it was) it can’t have been easy to provide the smack down ballot on something his party so desperately wanted. The vast majority of the time, though, McCain’s votes reliably support the desires of the Republican Party and the Trump administration.
I guess the big test of whether the rhetoric on scruples will actually align with action is on the upcoming tax bill. No one is exactly sure of the specifics of this proposal or its likely consequences—Republican leadership and the Trump White House really don’t want anyone to know, they just want it enacted toot suite because they really need a win. It’s pretty certain it’ll favor the well off and liberally splash red ink onto the government’s ledgers, but outside of that who knows.
It’ll be interesting to see if Flake and Corker’s concerns about government debt translate into no votes. Will they stick to the core anti-deficit values they’ve been fervently espousing, or say pooh to principle and vote yea because the president and, especially, the Republican Party have to get a W? And what about McCain, is he actually willing to cock a snoot on a second major legislative priority?
Nothing is certain, of course, but political scientists know that the best predictor of future legislative behavior is past legislative behavior. On that basis, the odds are 10 to 15 percent that the say-do ratio for these three will balance out. The odds are way higher—85 to 90 percent history is any guide—they’ll say no and press yes. Their words have been harsh, even scornful. Polling their votes, though, reveals three pretty dutiful Republican loyalists. And actions should speak louder than words.