Republican officials must be feeling a sense of déjà vu: An insurgent candidate beloved by the right-wing base and distrusted by the party elite is accused in a bombshell Washington Post report of past sexual misconduct, just as the campaign is in the home stretch. Should the GOP disavow the candidate, even at the risk of losing, or make a moral compromise to hold the party together?
As with Donald Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, so with Roy Moore, the Senate candidate from Alabama, after allegations that he dated teenage girls as an adult. And once again, some leading Republicans are proving more mealy-mouthed than others.
Arizona Senator John McCain was among the most forthright, saying that Moore “should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.” But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response was more typical: “If these allegations are true, he must step aside.” Variations of this formulation were used by countless other Republican officials. “There’s no Senate seat more important than the notion of child pedophilia, I mean, that’s reality,” Marc Short, Trump’s legislative director, said Sunday on Meet the Press. “But having said that, he has not been proven guilty. We have to afford him the chance to defend himself.” Another approach was silence: When asked about Moore, a group of Republican senators just nervously grinned and said nothing.
But there was no such equivocation on the far-right, where several prominent figures have defended Moore by claiming that he’s the victim of a media conspiracy or, more unbelievably, by arguing that Democrats are worse than child abusers. There is perhaps no starker illustration of negative partisanship today, and how it disproportionately afflicts the Republican Party. The Moore case also suggests the problem will only get worse as the Trump era marches on.
The allegations against Moore are thoroughly documented by the Post. Based on more than 30 sources, the report states that Moore was in his thirties when he pursued at least four teenagers, ranging in age from 14 to 18, and molested the 14-year-old. But even though Moore has sunk in polls—some show his Democratic rival Doug Jones in the lead—there is every reason to think that the scandal is energizing his political base. “This is Republican town, man,” a supporter in Moore’s hometown told NBC News. “He could have killed Obama, and we wouldn’t care.” According to a JCM Analytics poll, 37 percent of Alabama evangelicals were more likely to vote for Moore as a result of these allegations. Right-wing firebrand Dinesh D’Souza is responding similarly:
Eric Dondero, a right-wing activist and ex-staffer for former Congressman Ron Paul, and author Carroll Bryant took their defense of Moore a step further:
David Horowitz, who has penned many volumes of autobiography tracking his journey from the New Left to the New Right, made a similar argument:
It’s easy to dismiss such figures as extremists, but they clarify the degree to which the Republican coalition, stretching from D’Souza to McConnell, is held together by spite. They are even more passionate about hating Democrats than they are about cutting taxes for the rich.
Speaking of which: Tax cuts are the very reason that Republicans leaders in Congress have adopted the “if true” response to the allegations against Moore. If the party loses the Alabama seat, which until recently was held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then the margin of error for their tax overhaul is reduced to just one vote. That’s why McConnell and others, in their initially qualified remarks, are effectively handing over decision-making power to Roy Moore. As Ryan Lizza noted in The New Yorker, “[A]lthough McConnell’s statement appears relatively strong on its face, his ‘if it is true’ caveat actually offers Moore a loophole to stay the course.”
There is every reason to think that Moore will use that loophole to remain the Republican candidate. His political brand is founded on stubbornness in the face of authority: He first became a national figure by refusing to take a Ten Commandments plaque off a courtroom he presided over as a judge, an act of defiance made him a folk hero in Alabama. In a speech in Huntsville on Sunday, he made a religious pitch for his supporters to stand by him, saying, “We can be proud of where we came from and where we’re going if we go back to God. If we go back to God, we can be unified again.” He also threatened to sue to Post, which only adds to the déjà vu for Republicans.
As Republicans took stock of the accusations over the weekend, factional battles broke out along the familiar lines of the Trumpian populists and the GOP establishment. Publications like The Weekly Standard and National Review, which had taken up the Never Trump banner last year, came out strongly against Moore. On Monday morning, McConnell discovered his backbone, saying “I believe the women” and calling on Moore to step aside. This is the exact opposite of the approach taken by the populist wing. Breitbart, where Steve Bannon is the executive chairman, dispatched two “reporters” to Alabama with the mission of discrediting Moore’s accusers.
Bannon, who has called for a “reckoning” with McConnell and the establishment, is in a win-win situation. If Moore sticks around and wins the Senate seat, Bannon will be empowered as a king-maker. If Moore loses, Bannon can blame McConnell for undercutting a Republican candidate and helping elect a Democrat. On Monday afternoon, Moore again indicated that he’s not going anywhere, and took aim at the GOP establishment:
This latest twist in the Moore saga shows that negative partisanship isn’t just confined to Republican hatred of Democrats. Now, populist Republicans reflexively hate the leaders of their own party—with the exception of their Dear Leader himself. As long as Trump is in power, there will be many more episodes like the Moore scandal, splitting the GOP further and providing an opportunity for the opposing party—a species worse than child molesters—to return to power.