Jeff Flake’s attempts at bipartisanship had a tendency to leave him out on an island. Both figuratively and literally. 

During a recent talk at Harvard Kennedy School, the former Republican U.S. Senator from Arizona recounted how, during a self-described midlife crisis, he had once purposefully stranded himself on an uninhabited Pacific island for a week with nothing but minimal survival gear. He enjoyed it so much that he invited Senate colleague Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, to go back with him, with a Discovery Channel television crew in tow. Flake said the special, “Rival Survival,” wasn’t necessarily great TV, but was at least good for a laugh on late night.

“Stephen Colbert ran a clip of us out there spearing fish,” Flake recalled. “And he said ‘Flake and Heinrich proved once and for all Republicans and Democrats can get along when death is the only option.’” 

That was one of a number of stories of the ups and downs of bipartisanship that Flake, who declined to run for re-election in 2018 after serving one term in the Senate and six terms in the House, told during a wide-ranging conversation with Assistant Professor of Public Policy Leah Wright Rigueur at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum event, sponsored by the Institute of Politics, titled “Strengthening Democratic Institutions.” 

Some stories were humorous, but others were deadly serious, including the time he and fellow congressional Republicans were shot at while practicing for a charity baseball game and ran for cover as bullets kicked the dirt around them. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana was critically wounded in the incident, but survived.

Flake said that, as a Republican who opposed President Donald Trump, death threats had become a way of life. “My wife even mentioned it a couple of weeks ago; she said, ‘It's been three weeks and we've had no death threats and that's something,’” he said. 

Rigueur, whose work focuses on race, civil rights, political ideology, and the American two-party system, called it “unusual in an era of polarization” for Flake to publicly criticize his own party. In addition to opposing Trump, Flake donated to the Democratic opponent of Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct by a number of women.

“You actually stepped out and criticized your own party, which a lot of people were shocked about,” Rigueur said. “And I don't think that it came from anger ... but instead from a sense of really wanting something better.”

Flake agreed, saying he believes that previous generations of federal legislators, who often moved their families to Washington and whose children attended the same schools and played on the same sports teams, were able to develop closer relationships. 

“Now we have very much a commuter Congress where people come to Washington 

arrive on a Monday or a Tuesday and go home on a Thursday evening,” he said. “You just don't have the connection that you used to.”

Rigueur asked whether, since the ideological gulf between the parties now seems “so vast,” there  was still room for “collaborative moments” across the left-right divide. Flake cited the bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by Trump in December as an example.

“That was a bright shining moment that really had its origins in states like Texas in particular, where you had a very diverse group of people come together,” he said. “Fiscal hawks who were tired of building new prisons, people concerned with social justice and disparate sentencing, people in the faith community who wanted to do more rehabilitation in prison and decrease recidivism—they all came together and said let's do something, and that was so strong that Washington couldn't ignore it.”

Structural changes in the way the Senate operates could also help restore collaboration, Flake said. “We have concentrated far too much power in the leadership and taken away from the committees where bipartisan agreement used to happen,” he said.

Flake took questions from the audience and gave his views on a number of other issues. He called the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a blow to both parties, saying that while Democratic attacks on Kavanaugh may have helped the GOP retain control the Senate in the short term, Republicans may see “short-term, illusory gains” from the bitterly partisan confirmation fight.

Asked about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and the specter of impeachment, Flake said he hopes Trump is defeated at the ballot box rather than the country getting into a cycle of one side trying to invalidate electoral wins by the other. “I fear if we go through an impeachment process that some feel is unwarranted then we get more ingrained in that cycle and that's not a good thing,” he said.

Personally, he said he will vote for someone other than Trump in 2020, including an independent candidate—or even a Democrat.

“The notion that, you know, I'm Republican and therefore can't vote for a Democrat? I've never subscribed to that,” he said. “And I hope nobody ever does.”

Photo by Martha Stewart

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