Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Roy Moore’s victory in Alabama, the fate of the Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, and Trump’s (likely) crash course in Puerto Rico.
The runoff in the Alabama Senate primary has played out as a proxy fight for Donald Trump’s base, with Trump and Mike Pence throwing their weight behind Luther Strange, and Steve Bannon (and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage) campaigning for his opponent, Roy Moore. What should we take from Moore’s victory?
As the news of Moore’s victory hit last night, the Times tweeted that the results had delivered “a blow to President Trump.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Both of the GOP primary candidates were far to the right, and both were full-throated Trump supporters. Yes, Trump, acting impulsively on sloppy political intelligence, had endorsed the loser, Strange, but the Moore victory only adds to Trump’s power over the GOP. Moore was a Trumpist before Trump was: a nativist, homophobic, law-disdaining, white supremacist, theocratic Dixie judge — a Bible-thumping regional variant on Joe Arpaio. He will be a vocal Trump ally in trying to drive what’s left of the GOP Establishment in Washington out of power.
Keep in mind that in Politico’s accounting, Strange lost despite outspending Moore five to one on ads. Much of that money came from Mitch McConnell’s PAC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It was spent on incessant attacks and a Get Out the Vote effort. But all of it was to no more avail than the similarly well-financed and conventional campaigns of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and every other Establishment favorite who was supposed to shut down Trump and Trumpism during the 2016 presidential primaries. Moore, though spending far less on ads and political professionals, did have the blessing of Bannon, Breitbart, Sarah Palin, Laura Ingraham, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and the ever-angry Republican base. In the end, he had the implicit endorsement of Trump, too, given that Trump acknowledged that he might have made a “mistake” endorsing Strange, and expressed his admiration for Moore in that now-notorious rant he delivered at a Strange rally in Huntsville last Friday.
After Moore won last night, Scott Reed, a GOP Establishment stalwart who advised the Chamber of Commerce as it threw its money away on Strange, told the Washington Post that “Once again, Bannon’s strategy has no logical endgame.” Karl Rove has condemned Moore as the Republicans’ “Todd Akin of 2017 and 2018,” the party’s ill-fated 2012 Senate candidate who lost in Missouri after blabbing about “legitimate rape.” Bannon is no doubt laughing at their cluelessness. The pronouncements of the guy he helped catapult into the White House makes Todd Akin seem like Winston Churchill. The logical strategy of Bannon’s endgame is to drive out the likes of Rove and Reed (and McConnell and Paul Ryan) and complete the Trump takeover of the GOP with all the mini-Trumps and Todd Akins that can be suited up. Moore’s victory will further that goal, as did yesterday’s announcement that Bob Corker, an Establishment Republican senator from Tennessee, will retire rather than face the Trump base in a GOP primary next year. Before long, there will be others joining him and the GOP House members who had previously announced their retirements this year.
This may be good news for Democrats who will be facing off against Moore in December’s special election and against the other rising Todd Akins in 2018 and 2020. Or not. That’s too early to game out, even in Alabama. But Trump only gained with Moore’s victory; his mild embarrassment of endorsing Strange will quickly be forgotten by Alabamians, his national base, and even by him. Trump has already deleted his previous Tweets endorsing the loser.
An article in the Times last week suggested that the latest push to repeal Obamacare, despite any kind of sensible plan or sign of progress, may have been driven behind the scenes by GOP donors who are reportedly “refusing to contribute another penny” until they see some “concrete results” from the Republican Congress. With McConnell deciding yesterday that he didn’t have the votes for the Graham-Cassidy bill, will the conservative bankrollers of the GOP have to finally move on?
This of course was yet another fiasco for McConnell yesterday. The Senate Majority Leader, once universally regarded in Washington as a legislative wizard for the ages, once again failed to deliver on his party’s most overriding campaign promise, despite Republican control of the executive and legislative branches. Still, my guess is that the kind of donors who supported McConnell are making idle threats; they’ll keep shelling out as long as they think that McConnell and Ryan will deliver tax cuts, their No. 1 agenda item by far.
But there’s no evidence that’s happening, either. The mistakes of the “repeal and replace” debacle are already being repeated: the shutting out of Democrats from the process; a loosey-goosey bill whose details remain a mystery; the lack of direction from a president who wants a “win” and will sign anything called “tax reform” that’s put on his desk, but will have no idea what’s in “his” bill and no idea how to sell it to either legislators or the public. Plus, the whole effort is being supervised by the former Goldman Sachs plutocrat Steven Mnuchin, a Treasury secretary who has proven himself gaffe-and-scandal prone even by the low standards of the Trump cabinet, and who has already managed to offend Republican lawmakers with his high-handedness and the voting public with the Marie Antoinette antics of his wife. Even under the best circumstances, it’s a Herculean lift to pass tax reform — it hasn’t been achieved in Washington in more than three decades. Anyone who believes it’s going to happen in this climate with this White House and congressional leadership is either on drugs or reading The Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Meanwhile, the other anti-Establishment money on the right — the Dark Money, as Jane Mayer has branded it — will keep flowing in the Bannon direction. It’s the deep-pocketed likes of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, not Chamber of Commerce types, who are in the driver’s seat now.
After Puerto Rico’s governor warned of a coming “humanitarian crisis” and a potential mass exodus, Trump seems to be finally turning his attention there, planning a visit for next week. What took so long?
Hmm … First, he had to tend to his new NFL culture war so he could fire up his base and distract it from the health-care collapse. Second, he may have only recently discovered that Puerto Rico is an island, but he did know that Puerto Ricans speak Spanish and no doubt regards them as rapists and criminals. Third, he may have been wasting time trying to add Puerto Ricans to the travel ban until John Kelly or some other minder pointed out that they are American citizens. Fourth, his highest priority was to try to help his cronies get their money out of Puerto Rico before any storm refugees could: As Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC helpfully pointed out when analyzing the Trump tweet attacking Puerto Rico for its “massive debt” to bankers and Wall Street, one of the biggest investors there is the hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, a major Trump backer.
Just another week in Trumpland.