Transcript: Sen. Jeff Flake on "Face the Nation," July 30, 2017

Sen. Flake on the GOP

"Face the Nation" sat down on Sunday with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, author of the new book "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle." 

Flake discussed the book -- which New York Times opinion writer David Brooks calls "a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it" -- and why he wrote it. 

What follows is a transcript of the interview with Flake, which aired Sunday, July 30, 2017, on "Face the Nation."


JOHN DICKERSON: And that brings us to the other senator from Arizona, Jeff Flake, who the New York Times columnist David Brooks writes, "Is sunny and kind in a time when politics has become a blood sport." He joins us today to talk about his new book, "Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle." Welcome, Senator.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

JOHN DICKERSON: Why did you write the book?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I felt that just like Goldwater had felt in his time 56 years ago when he wrote the original Conscience of a Conservative that the party had lost its way. And I think similarly today the party has lost its way. We've given in to nativism and protectionism. And I think that if we're going to be a governing party in the future and a majority party we've got to go back to traditional conservatism. Limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility, respect for free trade. Those are the principles that made us who we are.

JOHN DICKERSON: One of the things you write in the book is, "It is not enough to be conservative anymore. You have to be vicious." What do you mean by that?

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Sen. Jeff Flake on "Face the Nation." CBS News

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, if you look at the politics of today, I mean, the tape from last week at the White House and the language that was used then. And we've seen unfortunately too many examples of members of- of Congress and other elected officials using language, referring to your opponents in ways that you would have never done before, ascribing the worst motives to your opponents, and- and assuming that other Americans are the enemies. And that's just not the way it used to be. And I don't think it can be that way in the future.

JOHN DICKERSON: Is it your view that that kind of behavior is-- well, it's bad on its own terms. But is it also getting in the way? It's blocking out?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: You bet. You bet. I mean, there are big issues that we've got to solve. We've talked about North Korea, the difficult foreign policy things that we have to do. But debt and deficit, for example, health care reform, these are things that can't be done by one party. We've just seen the limits of what one party can do.

Even if you change the rules of the Senate, which we should not do, there are limits to what one party can do. If we've- if we're going to solve the debt problem, $20 trillion of debt we have. We're going to be running deficits again over a trillion dollars soon. Those require both parties sitting together and sharing the risk. And it's hard to imagine that can happen when we're ascribing the worst motives to our opponents.

JOHN DICKERSON: In the book you obviously talk about the president. And we'll get to that. But you- you say in the book, "But Donald Trump is not the source code for our obsession with the politics of personal destruction. Our crisis has many fathers. Among them is Newt Gingrich, the modern progenitor of that school of politics."

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I got to Congress in 2001. Myself and Mike Pence actually, we had run think tanks- conservative think tanks in the '90s. We got elected together. And we sat next to each other early on on the floor. I remember him saying he felt like that we were minute men called up to the battlefront only to be told the revolution of ideas was over.

And- and  we'd given in to, you know, kind of the politics of personal destruction. And quickly, too, a lot of spending and other things that really I think made the ground fertile for the type of politics that we have today. And that's unfortunate. I think we as Republicans kind of gave away the limited government mantle when we spent like crazy in 2000, 2006 while Republicans had the majority in both houses and the White House.

And then that forced us to delve into the wedge issues like flag burning, or, you know, the case of Terri Schiavo, or things like that. And now we've I think taken up a banner that is not familiar to us. This one of, you know, intense nationalism, and nativism, and sometimes xenophobia.

JOHN DICKERSON: Why- What you're arguing here for is a standard that people maintain--

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Right.

JOHN DICKERSON: --regardless. Why is it so hard to stick to that standard?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Well, I think with round-the-clock media coverage and social media now, it all kind of drives us apart. And it- I think certainly the modern media culture values those who yell the loudest. And so the tougher path is frankly to have the kind of demeanor that some people might call boring. But you've got to move ahead and tackle the policy issues. And the problem is this is very much getting in the way of us solving the problems that we've got to solve.

JOHN DICKERSON: And making the case for those conservative ideas, you- you also say this about character. "We cannot claim to place the highest premium on character, then abruptly suspend the importance of character in the most vital civic decision that we make. When we excuse on our side what we attack on the other, then we are hypocrites. If we do that as a practice, then we are corrupt. If we continually accept this conduct as elected officials, then perhaps we shouldn't be elected officials." Are Republican leaders complicit in this if they don't call out their president?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: I do think so. I think that, you know, obviously the last thing you want to do is wake up every morning and see a tweet, and think, "I just--" you know, it's tough not to just say, "I'm not going to respond." And we can't respond to everything. But there are times when you have to stand up and say, "I'm sorry. This is wrong."

There are truths that are self-evident. And-- and you've got to stand up and call -- whether it's the White House or other elected officials -- to task when they're-- they're not doing what they should. And I do think that we bear the responsibility, if we're elected officials, to do that.

JOHN DICKERSON: What I hear from Republican leaders is, sure, they may get a little uncomfortable with things the president does. But he is able to sign tax reform, health care if it passes, and other things that are a part of core conservative principles. And so while they may have some quibbles with the way he behaves, he is the pathway to get some things passed that are-- that-- that would help in terms of conservative ideas.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:  Well, there are some things that the president has done that I've agreed with wholeheartedly. His agreement and-- and working with us on the regulatory state and making sure that regulations don't hamper business growth, that's been a boon to the economy. I think his ideas on tax reform, he has good instincts there.

The appointment of- the nomination of Neil Gorsuch I think was great. And other federal judges who have been nominated. So there are some good things. But then, you know, these attacks on trade. And I-- I think that we've got to realize that we are in a globalized society. We're only 5% of the world's population, only 20% of the world's economic output. We've got to trade to grow. And-- and I think that, you know, we've got to recognize, as elected officials, we've got to stand up for what we know is right.

JOHN DICKERSON: What then? How does the party change itself? If I'm a Republican, what do I do? How do you go forward?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: One, I think it has to start with demeanor. We have to model behavior that we'd be proud that our kids are watching. Because, like I said, we are not going to tackle the big issues. In the book I talk about how when our, you know, chief military officials, General Mattis, also Bob Gates when he was still in position, were asked what the biggest problems were, they didn't talk about North Korea, or Iran, or the Middle East.

They said the lack of civility and the lack of people getting along here in Congress, and that turning inward, we are the biggest problem here. And until we fix that, until we recognize that we've got to get together, whether it's on health care or taxes if we want to move ahead on those issues and have something that the president can sign, I would submit we'd better start looking across the aisle and saying, "How can we do this together?"

JOHN DICKERSON:

In the--in the current health care debate, why not have done that in--in this debate?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:

Well, I think we all knew we would get there eventually. There are only so many things you can do just as one party. We're arriving there a little quicker than we thought. I had hoped that we could keep a vehicle, you know, ready that we could use to move along more quickly.

So I was disappointed when it--when it died last week. Having said that, I'm glad to see that now we're talking about sitting down with our colleagues, going back to committee, going back to what we call regular order, and letting the committees and the experts deal with it, and bringing the public in more than we have before. So I--I hope that that's the case. And that'll be certainly good for us and good for the country.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right. Senator Flake, thank you so much.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE: Thank you.

JOHN DICKERSON: And we'll be looking for you tomorrow on "CBS This Morning" where we'll be able to hear more about the book. And for all of you, we'll be back in one moment.