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- Several prominent Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Flake, attacked President Donald Trump this week, voicing their strongest criticism yet.
- While some Democrats praised Flake’s denouncement of Trump, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement critical of the senator.
- The mixed messaging has some wondering how Democrats will appeal to anti-Trump Republican voters in 2018.
Democratic leadership sent conflicting messages following Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s dramatic Tuesday announcement that he will not run for reelection in 2018.
After the Arizona conservative delivered perhaps the most thorough public rebuke of President Donald Trump and his administration by an elected Republican, several prominent Democratic lawmakers praised the Arizona senator’s character and leadership.
“.@JeffFlake is one of the finest human beings I’ve met in politics. He is moral, upright, strong & will be missed in the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, tweeted on Tuesday.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s former running mate in the 2016 presidential election, called his Republican colleague a “friend,” “a good man,” and “an honest broker.”
But on Tuesday afternoon, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez denounced Flake’s support for Trump’s agenda and criticized him for not speaking out “until it’s too late.”
“Senator Flake voted with Donald Trump 91% of the time,” Perez said in a statement. “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.”
He continued, “Republicans in Congress remain in lockstep with the Trump agenda and silent in the face of the president’s disgraceful behavior.”
Symone Sanders, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former campaign press secretary, echoed the DNC’s criticism.
“Jeff Flake is all talk and no action,” Sanders said on CNN. “I’m not patting anyone on the back and giving them cookies and cupcakes for quitting.”
But Flake has long been an outspoken critic of Trump, refusing to endorse him as the party’s presidential nominee and publishing a book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” attacking Trump and the direction of the GOP.
Kaine defended Flake from accusations that he hasn’t backed his words up with action, saying that while he has many substantive disagreements with Flake and Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who also excoriated the president this week for “debasing” the nation, both Republicans are principled in their policy positions.
“Bob and Jeff are the same in this way: If you can convince them that something is good on the merits, they will stick with you no matter what their leadership says, no matter what the polls say,” Kaine told Politico.
Both liberal and conservative commentators criticized the DNC’s statement as a missed opportunity for Democrats to capitalize on Republican division.
“Isn’t it possible to disagree with @JeffFlake on policy and still applaud his condemnation of @POTUS divide and dissemble politics? I do,” David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, tweeted.
Ben LaBolt, a former spokesman for Obama’s presidential campaigns, said that Democrats should encourage anti-Trump Republicans to speak out.
“It may not be the job of the DNC, which is focused on winning every election we can, but as Democrats we should embrace rational Republicans that are willing to stand up to Trump and to combat the erosion of democratic ideals and institutions,” LaBolt wrote in a message to Business Insider. “Our system of government requires two functioning parties to thrive, and if one party checks out we’re all screwed.”
Conservative commentators argued that the dissenting Republican leaders are “basically doing pro bono ad work for the Democratic Party,” as conservative commentator Becket Adams wrote in the Washington Examiner.
“If you’re DNC chief Tom Perez, this is a gift. You use these red-on-red attacks to your advantage. You say something to the effect of, ‘Even GOP senator X believes Trump etc.’ or ‘We agree with GOP senator when he says …'” Adams went on.
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Jesse Ferguson, a top spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said that the DNC, and Democrats more broadly, can and should highlight their policy differences with Republicans while promoting the criticism Trump is receiving from even some of the most conservative members of his party.
“Sen. [Bernie] Sanders used to talk on the campaign trail about opening the doors of the Democratic Party and he’s right,” Ferguson told Business Insider. “We need to be welcoming in these folks who are increasingly concerned that Trump is reckless and a danger to the country. In doing that we don’t have to give up on policy differences that we’ve had with Republicans over the years. Those are not inconsistent goals.”
Ferguson said that Flake, Corker, and Sen. John McCain’s criticism of the president is “more credible than any case that Democrats are going to be able to make” to Trump voters.
DNC spokesman Michael Tyler defending the organization’s response, arguing that Democrats should welcome collaboration with Republicans where they agree on policy issues, but that they shouldn’t applaud Flake’s complicity with the Trump agenda.
“Democrats are more than willing to work with Republicans when they stand up for working people across this country, but we will not remain silent when Republicans try to strip away health care from millions, rush to give tax breaks to billionaires at the expense of working families, and vote to protect Wall Street over their own constituents, as Sen. Flake has done this year alone,” Tyler said in a message to Business Insider.
Flake and Corker are, indeed, very conservative. Both are protesting what they see as Trump’s instability and “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” behavior, while defending much of his agenda and the advisers he has surrounded himself with.
This argument is part of the same critique Democrats have made since Trump emerged on the political scene.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Perez echoed the language Flake and Corker used, writing, “We need to be vigilant and aware of how low the bar has fallen under Donald Trump. This is not normal & we won’t let it become normal,” Perez wrote.