Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: the stunning outcome of the Alabama Senate race and its potential effects on American politics.
In an election that had forecasters puzzled, Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore last night, reducing GOP’s Senate majority to one vote. What do you take away from the results in Alabama?
I am one of those pessimists who thought Moore would eke it out in Alabama. How happy I am to be wrong! I am also one of those optimists who firmly believes that Donald Trump will look for a White House exit before the end of his first term — whether he’s done in by the Robert Mueller investigation, a desire to rescue his family business and the two relatives in gravest legal jeopardy (son Fredo and son-in-law Jared), or his diet of junk food and Diet Coke. That optimism is bolstered by yesterday’s Alabama vote. Jones’s victory will further destabilize Trump both psychologically and politically. Psychologically because he hates being seen as a loser, and his futile all-in endorsement of an alleged child molester for the U.S. Senate implants a big L on his chest that no Twitter rant can erase. This scarlet letter will drive him crazy — or, perhaps one should say, crazier. Meanwhile, he will be imprisoned in political gridlock. The GOP, having lost a safe Senate seat in one of the nation’s reddest states, is about to tumble into full-scale panic as it tries to ward off the erosion and possibly the evisceration of its Congressional majorities in 2018. It will not even pretend to do Trump’s bidding while swing voters are watching closely.
The Republicans have a lot to fear. As the Washington Post put it, the only achievement they have to run on next year is “a tax-cut bill that has polled poorly and delivers most of its direct benefit to corporations and the wealthy.” (Even this achievement is predicated on the widespread but perhaps not airtight assumption that the final bill will sail through Congress between now and Jones’s senatorial swearing-in after New Year’s.) This morning, Republicans on next year’s ballot have to be looking hard at some of the more alarming (for them) findings of the Alabama exit polls. The most significant of these may be African-American turnout. Midterm election results during Barack Obama’s presidency — as well as Hillary Clinton’s defeat last year — consistently showed diminished black turnout when Obama was not on the ballot. That was not true yesterday: The African-American percentage of voters in Alabama matched that of the Obama victories of 2008 and 2012. Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the John Roberts Supreme Court are doing everything possible to aid and abet local efforts to suppress minority voting, but yesterday black voters fought back in Trump-era Selma (where Jones routed Moore) as they did in the Jim Crow Selma of a half-century ago. It’s a potentially momentous development for states and districts up for grabs next year.
The gender and generational gaps were also devastating for Moore. In Alabama and beyond, Trump has solidified the party’s national identity as a last redoubt for old white guys who can’t get enough of Sean Hannity. No wonder the latest national Marist poll this month finds that voters are leaning toward generic Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans in 2018 by a margin of 13 points. As the conservative writer John Podhoretz points out this morning, the two parties were in a virtual dead heat on this poll question at the same juncture in 2009, ten months before the GOP gave the Democrats what Obama rightly called a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms. As Podhoretz concludes, the Republicans have a good chance of being “smashed into a million pieces next November.”
Roy Moore’s campaign was the clearest demonstration yet of the Bannon/McConnell fault line within the Republican Party. How does Moore’s loss change Steve Bannon’s hopes for a party insurrection?
As has been true since Trump’s rise began, some analysts are once again hopefully spotting a resurgence of McConnell-Ryan Republicanism over the Trumpism codified by Bannon into a toxic admixture of nationalism and white supremacy. That is hardly the case. That new Marist poll finds that while Trump has only a 37 percent national approval rating, his approval rating among Republicans is still 84 percent. The latest Quinnipiac poll finds roughly the same (an 85 percent Trump approval rating among Republicans). Yesterday’s Alabama exit poll put McConnell’s approval rating at 16 percent among Moore and Jones voters alike. There’s no ambiguity here: The GOP is still the party of Trumpism, no matter what happened to Moore or what happens to Trump. The mathematical problem for the GOP is that that loyal Trumpist base, more than four-fifths of Republicans but only a third of the country, is not and never will be a national majority. If Democrats can peel off that roughly 15 percent of Republicans (suburban, female, young) who are repulsed by Trump-Bannonism and energize their own base, as happened yesterday in Alabama and earlier this year in Virginia, the numbers are there for a wave election next year and perhaps two years after that. (Unless the Democrats find a way to screw it up — as always a possibility never to be underestimated.)
With Trump’s Twitter smear against Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats are lining up behind the senator’s call for Trump’s resignation over multiple allegations of sexual assault. How does Jones’s victory strengthen the party’s ability to oppose the president?
Perhaps the most important (and exciting) national political development ratified in Alabama yesterday is the power of the #MeToo movement. It is still too early to gauge where this overdue and ever-swelling tsunami of political and social change is going to lead. In the short term, it is imperative that Democrats and any brave Republicans out there keep after the president’s own admitted history of serial sexual assault. That Gillibrand’s call for Trump’s resignation provoked such a gross tweet in response revealed two things: (1) He is fearful of his accusers as they again are emboldened to go public with their stories; (2) He has no sense of how much momentum and power this movement has gathered in the months since his election. It may soon be incumbent upon even GOP senators like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to join Democrats like Gillibrand. It remains essential that NBC and the producer Mark Burnett release any evidence of Trump criminality contained in videos or files from The Apprentice. We should not overlook the possibility that Trump’s history of sexual assault has as much potential to cripple or end his presidency as Mueller, the 2018 midterms, and Big Macs.