the national interest

What Would Democrats Do If Their Senate Majority Hinged on a Child Molester?

These are the times that try Mitch McConnell’s soul, or would if he had one. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As it has grown increasingly obvious that Roy Moore spent a good portion of his 30s luring teenage girls into enclosed spaces, Republicans have begun to nervously edge away from their party’s nominee for Alabama senator. Not all have abandoned him, though. Alabama Republican and member of Congress Mo Brooks provides an especially forthright version of the case for sticking with Moore. “Who will vote in America’s best interests on Supreme Court justices, deficit and debt, economic growth, border security, national defense, and the like?” he asks, “Socialist Democrat Doug Jones will vote wrong. Roy Moore will vote right. Hence, I will vote for Roy Moore.”

Put aside the absurd labeling of Jones as a “socialist,” as well as the fact that I don’t personally share any of Brooks and Moore’s policy goals. Isn’t this logic actually pretty compelling? As horrific as Moore’s personal character may be, why should his abuse of a small number of people matter more than decisions affecting 300 million people?

As many people have noticed, Moore and Trump have precipitated a reversal of sides on the public-versus-private question from where it stood two decades ago. During Bill Clinton’s time, it was the position of liberals, including liberal feminists, that the ramifications of a politician’s public duties mattered far more than whatever gross or abusive things he may have done to the tinier number of people in his immediate circle. In the wake of several days of mocking Republicans for standing behind Moore (and before him, Trump) merely for the sake of securing their agenda, many liberals are questioning their own previous stance. Michelle Goldberg concedes that Bill Clinton very likely raped Juanita Broaddrick. John F. Kennedy was disqualified from public office, Anthony Weiner belongs in prison, and Clinton should have been “off the campaign trail a long time ago,” concedes Alyssa Rosenberg. “See? I may be a liberal. But saying these things isn’t so hard.”

Well, sure, but it’s a lot easier to condemn a politician who no longer plays any important role in one’s own side’s policy goals. Condemning a sitting politician is a lot harder than one from a couple generations ago. Liberals now condemning Democratic sexual predators might protest that we have merely evolved with changing standards. But Bill Clinton’s behavior was made into a live issue in last year’s campaign. You didn’t see a lot progressives lining up to renounce him as a rapist. We could have had this reassessment of Clinton’s moral fitness last year. But maybe it seemed like keeping the presidency out of Trump’s hands was more important. And maybe that decision was … understandable.

There are certainly some confounding factors that render the simple Clinton-Moore equation more complicated. In Moore’s case, there were already several causes to disqualify him from holding public office, such as his habit of ignoring the law or his insistence that Muslims have no right to serve in Congress, which ought to be a bright red line. (Moore’s pledge to support a coup against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offers his party another reason not to want him in the Senate.) There is no imaginable Democratic Roy Moore because the Democratic Party doesn’t nominate authoritarian lunatics for high-level national office in the first place.

Also, as Goldberg writes, Clinton was targeted by false accusations generated by an unscrupulous right-wing media, which made it more plausible to dismiss even the believable accusations. But others argued with sometimes brutal frankness that Clinton’s use of his powers of office simply mattered more. “I’d be happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” wrote Nina Burleigh, notoriously.

In practice, it’s rare and difficult for politicians and even commentators to lay their calculation quite so bare. In 1998, Gloria Steinem characterized Clinton as an adulterer but not a harasser, and therefore morally kosher if a bit skeezy. Even Mo Brooks doesn’t go so far as to insist Moore’s abuse of teen girls doesn’t matter — he hedges by calling the charges “contested.” The practical problem with disavowing the actions but supporting the actor is that partisan debate tends to draw people into supporting both. Moore’s supporters might be motivated by a desire to pass laws they believe in, but many of them are expressing their position in terms of dismissing the large and growing body of evidence of his misdeeds.

Still, the motivation is understandable. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats need to gain three Senate seats to control the majority. Two of them, in Nevada and Arizona, lie within easy reach. The third seat would require a huge upset in deep red territory. If Democrats win a seat in Alabama, then a Democratic Senate in 2019 grows vastly more likely.

The Republican Establishment is trying to maneuver out of the binary choice of electing Roy Moore or putting their control of the upper chamber at risk by exploring exotic schemes, like voting to deny Moore a seat if he wins and replacing him with another appointed Republican. But if their machinations fail, they’ll be faced with a stark choice.

It’s easy to feel superior about this when opposition to grotesque treatment of teenage girls lines up neatly with your own party’s well-being. If you’re a liberal, ask yourself what you would do if the circumstances were reversed. Give the other party a Senate seat and a possible majority, and forfeit your control of staffing the Cabinet, appointing judges, and passing laws you consider vital for the country’s future? Or allow one of the votes for those things to be cast by a sexual predator?

What If Democrats’ Majority Hinged on a Child Molester?