The Senatorial Two-Step

Phoenix Magazine May 2017

 Mike O’Neil

Arizona’s two U.S. Senators are doing some fancy footwork trying to thread a needle over how to deal with a Republican President with whom they have serious misgivings.  How do these Republican Senators maintain the requisite Party Loyalty without selling their political souls on behalf of someone whose policies and behaviors are diametrically opposed to some of their core principles?

Both of Arizona’s two Senators have serious and fundamental disagreements with President Trump.  Each raised serious objections to his candidacy prior to his cinching the Republican nomination. Once that was inevitable, the norm of Party Unity has muted, but not completely silenced, their responses. 

McCain’s reservations are most dramatic in the foreign policy arena.  McCain is an unreconstructed foreign policy hawk who has been quick to argue for military action.  He supported the Iraq invasions and the “surge” (military escalation) in Iraq. He saw President Obama response to ISIS in Syria as too late and argued for a more threatening response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and military involvement in Eastern Ukraine.  He made a seamless transition of his cold-war era anti-communism/anti-Soviet ideology to Russia which he sees as a serious threat to our interests. He sees a full American commitment to NATO as a core foreign policy commitment. President Trump has taken diametrically opposite positions on most of these matters. Trump claimed to have been against the Iraq invasion, a more dovish position than that of Hillary Clinton. McCain is especially horrified at President Trump’s equivocal and conditional support for NATO and his reluctance to criticize Vladimir Putin. 

The especially interesting dilemma for McCain is that his positions on foreign policy are much closer to those that were espoused by Hillary Clinton than those of Donald Trump. Of course, during the recent election, Party Loyalty compelled that he find a fig leaf of a reason to characterize Clinton as an unsuitable commander-in-chief.  He seized upon Clinton’s email problem and “Benghazi” and unconvincingly cited these as disqualifying. Really? Against an opponent who did not support NATO, seemed friendly towards, or even beholden to,  Russia and opposed most of the military involvements supported by McCain and Clinton?  It was not believable.  I’d bet a sizeable fraction of my net worth that, in the privacy of the voting booth, McCain voted for Hillary Clinton last November.  (Though I’d bet even more that he’d never admit it publicly).

McCain has more latitude to criticize Trump than does Senator Flake, since McCain will not face the voters again for six years. (I am not among those who assume he will not run again for another term).  Senator Flake will face a Republican Primary in about a year and a half, and a general election shortly thereafter. So, his posture towards a Republican President could have more immediate political consequences.

Despite this greater risk, Flake’s has expressed disagreements with Trump over a wider range of issues than has McCain. As Rollcall described it he: “has vocally criticized his party’s freshly elected president, raised little money, and backed a moderate approach to an immigration overhaul.”   He has even clashed with Trump face-to-face. And he has been dismissive of Trump’s core commitment: Politico quotes him as saying, “There’s not going to be a 700-mile wall.”  He came out strongly against Trump’s “Muslim Ban.”  Writing in Medium.com, he stated “Enhancing long term national security requires that we have a clear-eyed view of radical Islamic terrorism without ascribing radical Islamic terrorist views to all Muslims.”   At a more fundamental level he has expressed concern about Trump’s character.

Flake, along with McCain, was a member of the “Gang of Eight” Senators who proposed a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. Although he has not been vocal on the subject recently, he has not wavered publicly to the extent that McCain did.  Famously, McCain, when running for re-election in 2010 veered hard right becoming the “build the danged fence” candidate (And he successfully fended off a right-wing primary challenger, JD Hayworth, in the process.)

Senator McCain ran for President under the banner “Country First”.  While that appellation could describe his military service, it is increasingly difficult to find anyone in Washington of either party for whom the apt description is anything other than “Party First” (or perhaps “Me First”).  Some elected officials deviate from this principle a little more than others. And Arizona’s two senators are among the few who have taken a few tepid steps in the direction of “Country First”.   But even for them, the steps have been small and halting. They stand out only in relation to most of their peers who deviate from Party Orthodoxy even less. The Washington Rule is “Party First”—and it is rarely broken by anyone.


Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.