Debate coaches will probably call Luther Strange the winner on style and points in his much-anticipated debate with GOP Alabama Senate runoff opponent Roy Moore, held five days before voters decide their fate. But the clear loser was the Lincoln-Douglas format. With no moderator or questioners, the format placed the direction of the debate in the hands of the two candidates. To call the course they charted “questionable” would be generous.
No moderator or panel of questioners would have tolerated Luther Strange’s endless, redundant references to his support from the president and the vice-president, which reached a point at which no one would have been surprised had Big Luther just chanted “Make America Great Again” for an entire five-minute segment. Again and again, he upbraided Moore for not addressing “the issues” before making it plain that the only issues in his mind were his “relationship” with Trump and the impending arrival of POTUS and VPOTUS in Alabama to bless the fine citizens of the state with their wise, perhaps even holy, presence.
It’s also likely a moderator or panel would have shown some impatience with Judge Roy’s poorly articulated, I’ve-got-some-press-clips-here attacks on Strange, which anyone not following the campaign would have found puzzling. Presumably Alabama Republicans know enough about Moore that his brief summary of his defiant judicial career was sufficient, but he did not do a particularly good job of explaining why Trumpites — among whom he clearly placed himself — should prefer him to Trump’s own choice.
The only real suspense in the debate revolved around the question of whether Strange could make it through the entire 60 minutes without departing from his one-two punch of touting the Trump-Pence endorsement and boasting of the many times he went to court to fight the evil tyrant Barack Obama. Big Luther did, eventually, go into an elliptical and (to non-Alabamans) obscure account of the Powers That Be, which he defied in his stewardship of the Deepwater Horizon litigation as Attorney General. Judge Roy matched that with an odd tangent about the Taylor Force Act, legislation aimed at cutting off humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority if it doesn’t stop support for family members of anti-Israeli terrorists.
They both returned to form near the end of the debate when Moore allowed, “There is a God in heaven in this campaign,” and Strange responded, “I don’t think God is on Moore’s side, or on my side, but God is on the president’s side, and the president is on my side.” This transitive divine endorsement for Strange is the heart of his campaign, and Moore’s claim that Trump has been drawn away from God’s will to Mitch McConnell’s is the heart of the judge’s campaign. We’ll see next Tuesday which of these right-wing cartoon characters Alabama GOP runoff voters believe they are called to support. In the meantime, secular liberal folk in the rest of the country who can’t imagine anyone liking, much less loving, Donald Trump should tune into this campaign, where his greatness is worshiped to the point of idolatry.