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Dumbest Senator of the Year: Tommy Tuberville

The Republican senator from Alabama spent 2023 turning himself into one of the most hated men in Washington—even by members of his own party.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senator Tommy Tuberville’s nearly yearlong protest against the Department of Defense’s abortion policy brings to mind an old Chinese proverb that translates to, “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” It means that when you take on something risky—or in this case, downright stupid—it’s easier to keep going than to face the consequences of trying to stop.

For nine months, Tuberville single-handedly blocked more than 450 military promotions, throwing the entire U.S. military into disarray. According to the Alabama Republican, this was the best way to protest the department’s policy of reimbursing service members who have to travel out of their state of deployment for an abortion.

Tuberville partially relented on December 5, when he agreed to allow most of those promotions to go forward with the exception of four-star generals. He then dropped those remaining holds this week, and the Senate promptly confirmed 11 nominees to that position.

After all those months of protesting, Tuberville accomplished … nothing. The Defense Department’s abortion policy is still in place. The only difference is that now, all of the department leadership and pretty much every other senator is angry with him.

If you’re wondering how one man was able to block so many promotions, you should know that typically, the Senate majority leader brings a list of proposed military promotions to the floor. The chamber votes on all the candidates at once, and unanimous consent is needed to approve the promotions. Democrats tried throughout the year to bring individual candidates to the floor for a vote, but there were too many stalled promotions for this to have been efficient. So, they were forced to wait until Tuberville relented.

It would be easy to dismiss Tuberville’s stunt as pure idiocy. His colleagues certainly think he’s a knucklehead. In November, some of Tuberville’s fellow Alabama Republicans tried to defend his refusal to acknowledge that white nationalists are racist.

“I do not believe that Tommy Tuberville is a racist at all,” one of them said, speaking anonymously. “I really believe that maybe he doesn’t have an understanding of the English language.”

Tuberville was definitely trying to pull some sort of political move with his stunt, just maybe not the one we all thought. While Tuberville said he was trying to protest the abortion policy, he could just as easily have been trying to stall until the 2024 election.

As Brynn Tannehill wrote for The New Republic in September, “This is a naked power play, whose end goal, I suspect, is to fill every senior military position simultaneously with Trump loyalists and sycophants if [Donald] Trump wins reelection in 2024.”

It’s possible that Tuberville wasn’t even thinking that far ahead. He could have just been trying to see if he could force the White House to nominate less abortion-friendly people for military leadership positions. We may never know what Tuberville was truly after, but we do know that he quickly found himself in over his head.

He brought increased scrutiny on himself, resulting in multiple damaging revelations. Despite promising in 2020 to donate “every dime” he makes in Washington to veterans’ causes, Tuberville has yet to actually do so. He appears to have completely fabricated his father’s military record, and he has lived in Florida, not Alabama, for nearly two decades.

Military leaders called him out by name, accusing him of “aiding and abetting Communist and other autocratic regimes”—a devastating insult for any Republican but especially a far-right one.

But now that he was on the tiger, Tuberville couldn’t dismount without looking foolish. Politico reported in November that Tuberville had “signaled he’s looking for an off-ramp” from his own protest, desperate to save face as his colleagues grew increasingly frustrated with him.

Things came to a head during an explosive Senate session in November, when Tuberville’s fellow Republicans excoriated him on the floor. Iowa’s Joni Ernst slammed Tuberville for going back on his word to pass the promotions, saying she had lost respect for him.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham accused Tuberville of “doing great damage to our military.”

The most savage condemnation came from Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan. “Xi Jinping is loving this. So is Putin,” Sullivan said, referring to the presidents of China and Russia. “How dumb can we be, man?”

A month later, Tuberville finally caved.

Up until the very end, Tuberville insisted that he wasn’t hurting military readiness. He blamed any problems in the military on “wokeness” making service members weak, despite repeated and increasingly urgent warnings about his actions from his colleagues and military leaders. His actions are extra rich given that Tuberville later complained that the U.S. doesn’t have strong enough protections at the border. He argued that Trump’s fascist approach wasn’t tough enough.

The truth is, of course, that Tuberville’s stunt was wrecking military readiness. Leadership positions sat empty for months. When they were finally filled, chief officers often found themselves without deputies, forcing them to work two jobs. In October, the Marine Corps commandant suffered a heart attack. There is no indication that his double workload—caused by Tuberville’s blockade—contributed to his heart attack, but working two jobs definitely didn’t help.

Tuberville was also hurting people who had no role in creating the policy he so opposed. Service members couldn’t move. Their partners couldn’t find new jobs in their new locations; their children couldn’t start at new schools.

And of course, Tuberville stigmatized people who need abortions. He made them a source of tension and political controversy, instead of patients simply seeking health care.

Reproductive health care is important for everyone, but it is especially important in the military. Rates of sexual assault in the ranks are increasing, but people also need to be able to end nonviable pregnancies or just choose what future is best for them. Service members can’t pick where they are sent. If they are deployed to a state that restricts access to reproductive care, they need to be able to take care of themselves.

Tuberville—with the help of the Republicans who let his protest drag on this long—has shown yet again that he doesn’t really care about the people in this country or even the military that he claims to respect so much. All he cares about is holding onto power and holding it over people. The fact that he has not been penalized for his actions sets a precedent for other politicians to pull similar stunts.

What Tuberville has done is dangerous. Let’s just hope he hasn’t thrown us all to the tigers.