The Republican Party has finally found a line it won’t cross. After days of soul-searching (and/or, poll-watching), the GOP’s leading senators decided that they would not spend the next month urging Alabamians to vote for a possible sexual abuser of teenage girls over a definite Democrat.
Last week, four women accused Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of courting them when he was in his 30s and they were in their teens. One of those women accused Moore of molesting her when she was only 14. The crusading social conservative then gave an interview to Sean Hannity, in which he vehemently denied the latter accusation, while finding a variety of ways to tacitly admit that he dated teenagers when he was a 30-something assistant district attorney (“I don’t remember dating any girl without the permission of her mother”).
On Monday, a fifth accuser came forward. Beverly Young Nelson claims that when she was 16, a 30-year-old Moore offered her a ride in his car, drove to a deserted parking lot, groped her, and then tried to force her face toward his crotch. Weeks before the incident, Moore had signed her high-school yearbook. Nelson announced that she has no interest in winning a civil or criminal lawsuit against Moore, only the opportunity to tell her story under oath, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
When the allegations against Moore first surfaced, Senate Republicans adopted a posture of epistemological uncertainty. In no uncertain terms, Mitch McConnell and Co. declared that Moore’s alleged history of child sex abuse was disqualifying “if true.” But by Monday afternoon, the GOP no longer had the stomach to acquit Moore on grounds of unreasonable doubt.
McConnell called on his party’s nominee for Senate in Alabama to “step aside.” A flood of other Republican senators followed suit. Shortly after Nelson went public with her harrowing story, Colorado Republican Cory Gardner went nuclear.
“I believe the individuals speaking out against Roy Moore spoke with courage and truth, proving he is unfit to serve in the United States Senate and he should not run for office,” the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said in a statement. “If he refuses to withdraw and wins, the Senate should vote to expel him, because he does not meet the ethical and moral requirements of the United States Senate.”
This stance is probably the bare minimum required by basic human decency. Nonetheless, it’s remarkable that the Republican leadership is meeting that threshold.
If Moore loses Alabama’s special Senate election on December 12, then (in all probability) Democrat Doug Jones will move into Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat. McConnell’s margin for error on tax reform will, thus, fall to just one vote, while Chuck Schumer will gain a solid chance of becoming majority leader in 2019 — a development that would put the brakes on the GOP’s transformation of the federal judiciary.
The critical importance of December’s election was underscored by the GOP’s willingness to back Moore in the first place. Republicans might not have realized that their standard-bearer in Alabama was an alleged child predator; but they knew perfectly well that he was a delusionally bigoted theocrat who believes his interpretation of the Bible supersedes Supreme Court rulings — and repeatedly used his power as an elected official to undermine the rule of law in the United States. The GOP also knew that Moore believed that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress; that there are Christian communities in Illinois that have been forcibly subjected to the rule of Sharia law; and that consensual sex between adult men should be a criminal offense.
And yet, immediately after Moore secured the Republican nomination, Cory Gardner declared his unequivocal support for the lawless authoritarian.
In service of their plutocratic policy agenda, Republicans were comfortable backing an open Islamophobe for U.S. Senate; supporting an alleged serial sex criminal for president; helping that president cover up god-knows-what malfeasance he’s hiding in his tax returns; nullifying Barack Obama’s right to appoint Supreme Court justices; and letting a man who requires “adult daycare” retain unilateral control over America’s nuclear arsenal.
But remaining agnostic about the allegations against Roy Moore was, apparently, a bridge too far.
It’s possible that these stances can be reconciled by some genuine ethical principle: It is okay for an alleged sexual abuser of adult women like Donald Trump to be president, but unacceptable for an alleged sexual abuser of teenage girls to be a senator. But that would be an awfully odd ethical principle. It seems more likely that the GOP’s decision to sever ties with Moore was produced by a combination of visceral disgust and cold political calculation.
By all appearances, McConnell has no surefire plan for how to ditch Moore and keep his Senate vote, too. A Luther Strange write-in campaign is unlikely to do much beyond guarantee Jones’s victory. Jeff Sessions reportedly has no interest in forfeiting his post at the Justice Department to campaign for his old Senate seat as a write-in candidate. It’s possible for Alabama governor Kay Ivey to reschedule the special election, giving the party time to get a new nominee on the ballot line. But Ivey has already ruled out a postponement. And given the cloud of corruption that currently envelops the Alabama GOP, it’s hard to see the governor inviting the backlash that such a dodgy move could inspire — from moderate voters and hardcore Moore supporters, both.
The GOP’s only happy endgame here is a Moore victory, followed by an expulsion vote, which would clear the way for Ivey to make a new appointment. This would allow Republicans to keep the seat and performatively demonstrate their ethical scruples, too. But loudly denouncing Moore, at this point in time, seriously jeopardizes step one in that plan.
If Republicans’ sole priority was keeping this Senate seat, adopting a code of silence about the allegations against Moore — as they’ve done already with the president’s incendiary tweets — might be the party’s best play. But Republicans also need to consider the damage that Moore would do to their (increasingly toxic) national brand. In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrats won women by 22 points. And the post-Weinstein reckoning threatens to make gender identity more salient in American politics than ever before. If there was ever an okay time to be the party of an alleged, attempted teen rapist — who believes that teenage rape victims should be forced to carry their assailants’ children to term — this isn’t it.
Further, Moore was campaigning against McConnell and the GOP Establishment. There is no guarantee that the far-right theocrat would even be a reliable vote on tax cuts or any other legislation. And the Senate leadership has an interest in discrediting Steve Bannon’s nascent rebellion by ensuring its first victory is a pyrrhic one.
By contrast, there was approximately nothing for Republicans to gain in disowning Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape failed to derail his candidacy — and far more for the party to lose in declaring war against its base’s conquering hero.
In sum: Standing by Moore would mean establishing the GOP as the party of callous indifference toward child sex abuse, on the outside chance that an untrustable fanatic would vote however President Trump tells him to.
Republicans would do anything for tax cuts — but they won’t do that.