On Politics With Lisa Lerer: Jeff Flake’s #Me Moment

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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“What does it feel like to be a man without a country?”

That was the question posed to Senator Jeff Flake on Monday, three days after he infuriated many fellow Republicans by delaying Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings by insisting on an F.B.I. investigation as a condition for his support.

Since then, Mr. Flake has been making the rounds, popping up on “60 Minutes,” in print interviews and on a panel at a Forbes conference in Boston. Tonight, he’s speaking at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., a traditional stop for presidential candidates — a possibility he has not ruled out.

Given that Mr. Flake was cornered by emotional victims of sexual assault last week, you might think he wants to talk about Judge Kavanaugh’s qualifications. Or you might think he has something to say about sexual violence.

But this is definitely not about #MeToo. It’s more like #Me.

For the past two years, Mr. Flake has been a man on an island. He infuriates conservatives with his constant sniping at President Trump, which included writing a book bemoaning how he thinks the administration has compromised the Republican Party. But he almost always votes with the administration (83.6 percent of the time, according to data collected by FiveThirtyEight), irritating Democrats.

Take his comments on Judge Kavanaugh: “I’m a conservative. He’s a conservative. I plan to support him unless they turn up something — and they might.”

People who know Mr. Flake say his critique is less about ideology than political style.

“He’s not a moderate. He’s still arguing for his conservatives beliefs, but he’s always been of the opinion that you can do that in a cordial way,” said Jaime Molera, a Republican strategist who’s friendly with the senator.

Voters, though, have not exactly been crying out for comity: Mr. Flake opted out of running for re-election last fall after watching his approval ratings crater.

Now, he sees a fresh opportunity to push his message. In his comments this weekend, he decried the lack of bipartisanship in Washington. He fretted about the damage the divisive battle is doing to institutions like the Supreme Court. And he claimed there are Republicans seeking a different kind of politics than those of the Trump administration.

“They see the policies that come out of the White House and say, ‘Where is our party?’” he said, in Boston. “They’re looking, yearning for a more decent politics. Stand for your principles, yes, but understand compromise isn’t a dirty word.”

The question is, where, exactly, are all these longing Republicans?

There certainly weren’t enough of them to defeat Mr. Trump in the 2016 primary. Nor were there enough in the many races this year where Mr. Trump’s candidates beat out the establishment picks.

Republicans quickly realized that the way to win a primary in 2018 was by aligning yourself with the White House, not against it. And while the numbers have dropped a bit in recent weeks, the vast majority of Republican voters — near 80 percent — say they still approve of the president.

Mr. Flake knows this. Perhaps his most revealing statement about the confirmation hearings came when he admitted that he never would have moved to delay the vote if he were running for a third term.

“There’s no value to reaching across the aisle,” said Mr. Flake on Sunday night. “There’s no currency for that anymore.”

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This weekend, Caitlin Dickerson, a national immigration reporter for The Times, broke a story about 1,600 migrant children who have been sent to a tent city in Texas. Today she sent us this, on the politics of immigration:

Despite all the news about the F.B.I. investigation into the man who may become our next Supreme Court justice, a surprising number of readers latched onto the details in my story about migrant children being moved to Texas: Massive tents on a barren patch of land. Portable toilets. No schooling. Limited legal access.

The children are headed to the tent city because the shelters that typically house them are overflowing.

This story is one of several that I’ve written about underage border crossers (some of whom were separated from their parents) that seemed to strike a chord with readers across the political spectrum, which raises the question: Will the strong feelings of voters, both Republican and Democrat, about this issue somehow translate into the midterms?

I reached out to Amanda Cox, editor of The Upshot and one of our resident experts on polling. She told me that as recently as last week, both liberal and conservative voters signaled that immigration was indeed very important to them.

As part of The Upshot’s Live Polls project, The Times has done some of its own polling on the finer points of immigration, which, Amanda explained, has revealed some unexpected views in battleground districts.

“Abolishing I.C.E. was not popular at all, and support for building a wall was mixed, but not great,” she said.

A couple of things she found surprising:

A strong majority in these battleground districts said illegal immigrants living in the United States are not more likely than American citizens to commit serious crimes.

A very strong majority said that it doesn’t bother them to hear immigrants speak a foreign language in a public place.

She had not expected voters to be quite so tolerant, she said, since polls had previously found “much higher support for people saying discrimination against whites had become as big of a problem as that against blacks and other minorities.”

Read Caitlin’s story: Migrant Children Moved Under Cover of Darkness to a Texas Tent City

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It’s hard to believe it’s taken us this long (how long have we been doing this newsletter? Three weeks? Three years?) to talk about the next presidential election. But, after a weekend full of speculation, it’s finally time. Introducing … 2020 WATCH.

Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered perhaps the strongest announcement any major candidate has made yet, saying on Saturday, “After Nov. 6, I will take a hard look at running for president.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been “actively exploring” a presidential run, our own Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin write — though his role in Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings is complicating his plans.

And Michael Avenatti, the Democratic lawyer who’s taken up residence in cable news green rooms, said he’s “seriously considering” a presidential bid at the Texas Tribune annual policy conference this weekend.

Also at the conference:

Senator Jeff Merkley told the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston that he’s “exploring very seriously” the possibility of a presidential run in 2020.

“It’s something I’m thinking about,” said Eric Holder, the former attorney general.

Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, would say only, “I’m not running today.”

Even John Kerry refused to rule it out, saying: “I’m not thinking about it right now. I have too much work to do.”

Makes you wonder: Are there any Democrats not considering running for president?

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Today marks the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. To mark the occasion, The Times spoke to a number of survivors. Here are their stories.

There’s a lot to digest in the new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada. (For one, it’s now called U.S.M.C.A., not Nafta.) Here are the highlights.

• Senator Joe Manchin is a Democrat representing one of the deepest-red states. In this profile, he reflects on his relationship with the president and seems to genuinely envy the life of a landscaper. Read that in GQ.

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Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi found his wedding band — more than thirty years after he lost it.

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Isabella Grullón Paz and Margaret Kramer contributed to this newsletter.

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