▸ Hometown: Snowflake, Arizona
▸ Education: BA, international relations, 1986, and MA, political science, 1987, Brigham Young University
▸ Time in Congress: House of Representatives: 2001–13; Senate: 2013–19
▸ Political role model: Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)
▸ Mentor: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
▸ Successor in Senate: Kyrsten Sinema (D)
▸ Prior political experience: Executive director, Goldwater Institute, a libertarian conservative think tank
▸ Bipartisan bona fides: A member of the “Gang of Eight,” an evenly split group of Democrat and Republican senators that sponsored an immigration overhaul bill in 2013 that passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives
Retired senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) may be the most frustrating figure in recent US politics. His routine, if tempered, castigation of President Donald J. Trump and habitual snapback to the Republican Party line when roll was called in the Senate managed to annoy both the left and the right.
Although Flake’s shuttling between dissent and conformity was not entirely unique—others in his party stepped up to criticize the president more than once, only to fall back in line—his anodyne style of moving to high ground between votes on contentious issues earned him the reputation of a politician who, at heart, sought comity with moderate Democrats, a rare thing in the partisan US Congress. In 2014, he went so far as to spend a week on the uninhabited island of Eru in the Marshall Islands with Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM). They survived.
More recently, Flake, who left Congress on Jan. 3, traveled to Chicago to deliver the keynote address at CPhI North America, a convention of the pharmaceutical chemistry and services sector. “As the senator is newly out of office,” Joseph Marks, brand director of CPhI North America, told C&EN, “we knew he would be able to provide great insight into the current outlook on health-care policy in a candid and honest way.”
Though candid and honest in his address, and in a discussion with C&EN afterward, Flake offered more of a mirror of his businessperson audience than a window into our current congressional stalemate on health care and virtually everything else. What the audience got was a perspective on business from a truly dedicated conservative who is also conflicted in the face of current Republican leadership—a perspective perhaps not unlike their own 2 years into the Trump administration.
Flake grew up in a Mormon family on a cattle ranch in Snowflake, Arizona—a town half named after his great-great-grandfather and where, according to Flake, it sometimes snows. He is a devotee of former senator Barry Goldwater, the notorious Arizonan whose idealism became a Republican brand that put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Flake is such a disciple of Goldwater’s Republicanism that he used the title of Goldwater’s 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, as the tile of his own book—leaving off the “The”—about the current crisis in conservatism.
Flake’s political foundation is essentially naive—as in pure, natural, and easy to understand. He is guided by a highly recognizable set of principles that informed his votes in the Senate.
“I’ve never taken to the president, and I think that he’s not very conservative, frankly,” he told C&EN. “And the policy positions he’s taken, whether it’s anti–free trade or anti–fiscal responsibility or anti-immigration, are antithetical to the Republican Party. But a lot of them we never get to vote on, such as the Muslim ban.” The details of the president’s proposed ban changed and the issue was taken up by the courts, he pointed out.
“On tax policy and regulatory policy, I’m a conservative, and I try to vote that way,” Flake continued. “It’s sometimes a little frustrating when people say, ‘Hey, you disagree with the president, so you shouldn’t vote with him.’ I often hear this on repealing Obamacare. Well, prior to the president, I voted on repealing Obamacare 34 times. Then he comes along. Should I change my vote because he’s president? I’m a conservative. I like lower taxes and I like fewer regulations in general.”
He also likes capitalism, as reflected in his views on drug prices. “There is certainly a lack of transparency on how we arrive at these prices, and any transparency would solve a lot of this,” he said. But there is also a “disconnect” in the public’s understanding of the business of drug discovery and development, according to Flake.
“People don’t realize what good has come of the profit motive,” he said. Companies “develop a wonder drug that does wonders for people who are involved, but it also makes some people rich—that’s the trade-off, and one we’ve been willing to make and should continue to be willing to make.”
He takes a dim view of the concept of value-based pricing, the notion put forward by some drug companies that a drug’s price should reflect future costs removed from the health-care system through cures or a reduction in necessary hospitalization or other treatment. He likes the more traditional approach of pricing drugs to recoup the cost of development and commercialization.
“We can argue that it does cost a lot of money to bring a drug to market. The approval process is slow and arduous; you don’t know how long you’ll be able to recapture your investment. Those are all part of how the free market works,” he said. “The other is a more attenuated argument.”
When it comes to the environment, the senator is predictably in favor of the direction that regulations have headed under Trump. He pointed to his frustrations in dealing with particulate regulations in Arizona. Getting the US Environmental Protection Agency to recognize that “dust storms happen naturally in that area was just incredibly difficult,” he said. He also was frustrated by regulations that were “one size fits all, treating us like Portland, Oregon.”
Flake echoes managers in the chemical industry in his yearning for predictability in environmental as well as labor laws, something he found lacking under the previous administration. “The Trump administration has been better on those kinds of things,” he said.
Yet the president made a big mistake at a higher level on the environment, Flake reckons. “I was chagrined when the president pulled out of the Paris climate agreement,” he said. “We had so much going for us in terms of a cleaner economy, in terms of renewables, battery storage, cheaper natural gas instead of coal. With all those advantages, we could have afforded to stay in Paris and have met the goals and objectives anyway. And to have kept our allies as our allies.”
Republicans who support Trump’s withdrawal are playing the short game politically, in Flake’s estimate. “Millennials are going the other way,” he said. “They don’t want to be associated with the party that doesn’t recognize that climate change is real.”
And Flake is dissatisfied with the administration’s approach to trade, especially regarding China. Predictability is not a prominent feature in the president’s current reliance on tariffs, he noted. “If we don’t get some kind of deal, then I would say that investments that have been made in China are at risk,” Flake said of firms at CPhI that have manufacturing operations in China. “It’s a dicey landscape anyway with China, and it’s only dicier now because of what can only be called a trade war.”
Flake speaks of his commitment to fighting for basic conservative principles. And fight he did over 18 years in the divided Congress. “I thought I’d put the gang life behind me when I left the mean streets of Snowflake,” he quipped to the CPhI audience. As for future battles? Flake deflected a photographer’s suggestion during the C&EN interview that he run for president. With his ready smile, Flake pointed to his wife, Cheryl. “If you can clear it with her, it would be farther than I’ve gotten before.”
On future battles, then, color Jeff Flake currently noncommittal.