The implosion of the Senate candidacy of Roy Moore brings to mind the title of an early Spike Lee movie: “Do the Right Thing.”
After Moore romped home in the Alabama Senate primary runoff in late September, the national Republican Party could have shunned him for many valid reasons. There was Moore’s un-American belief that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress; his wackadoodle claim that Sharia law governed communities in Indiana and Illinois; and his defiance of the law that twice led to his removal from Alabama’s Supreme Court.
A few Republicans like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring from Congress with his honor intact, publicly recoiled at the notion of Moore taking the Senate seat recently held by Jeff Sessions. But most Republicans, from Mitch McConnell on down, once again followed the courageous doctrine of “my party, right or wrong.”
Even though Moore excoriated McConnell in winning the primary over interim Sen. Luther Strange, the majority leader in late October still invited Moore to the weekly Republican Senate policy lunch as a peace gesture.
Part of the motivation was exaggerated fears of the political power of Steve Bannon, who had championed Moore in the primary. But a larger element was a shameless acceptance of anyone — no matter how dicey — who would uphold the Republican Senate majority. GOP patriarch Orrin Hatch expressed the prevailing forgive-and-forget attitude toward Moore: “If he gets duly elected, I’m going to support him.”
Of course, at the time no one knew of The Washington Post’s bombshell charges about Moore’s alleged sexual history with four women ranging in age from 14 to 18.
The Post highlighted the on-the-record account of Leigh Corfman, who said Moore allegedly had sexual contact with her when she was 14 years old. One icky detail in Corfman’s account: Moore initially approached her while she and her mother were waiting outside a courtroom for a child custody hearing.
Now Republicans in Washington are busy pretending that less is Moore.
A little too late
All the belated calls for Moore to withdraw from the race have collided with the stubbornness of a political loner who has no need to appease the national party. Even if Moore suddenly decided to make McConnell happy, Alabama law says that it is too late to remove his tarnished name from the ballot for the Dec. 12 special election.
Now while national Republicans desperately concoct write-in schemes for Strange or another candidate, Democrats suddenly have a fighting chance to pick up a Senate seat in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
The secret is the Democrats nominated an appealing and serious candidate in Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Montgomery.
Contrast Jones’ sterling background with that of Democrat Rob Quist, the amiable folk singer who lost a House special election in Montana in May. Or the record of the youthful Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s 6th, who exaggerated his resume and was living with his fiancee outside the district.
The truth in politics is that candidate quality matters, even in seemingly near-impossible races. In a long political season, opportunity can knock in places that surprise pollsters and pundits. The more credible candidates the Democrats nominate for the House in 2018, the better the party’s odds are of ousting Paul Ryan as speaker in a wave election.
More than anyone in Congress, Mitch McConnell personifies the view that the only lasting principle is partisan advantage. It was the Senate majority leader who — breaking with all precedent — held a Supreme Court seat open for a year because he didn’t want Barack Obama to replace Antonin Scalia.
Pass the spoon
These days, McConnell has become the embodiment of why Americans hate Congress. Democrats loathe his stiletto tactics, while conservatives remain enraged over his failure to repeal Obamacare.
The results are popularity ratings in the Nancy Pelosi range. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed McConnell with a 25 percent approval rating. In fact, McConnell has not hit the one-third approval mark in any poll taken this year.
Yet as Senate Republicans bravely claim that they will pass tax reform after the Thanksgiving recess, McConnell faces leadership challenges with a 52-48 majority that Lyndon Johnson would find daunting.
Start with the two retiring senators (Flake and Bob Corker), who radiate rightful rage at Donald Trump. Two GOP senators are seriously ill (Thad Cochran and the irrepressible John McCain). Rand Paul, in a bizarre incident, was beaten up by a Kentucky neighbor. And after Dec. 12, McConnell will probably have to deal with Moore as the new Alabama senator or — even worse in his viewpoint — a Democrat (Jones).
As McConnell put it recently, harking back to a 1980s antacid commercial, “Every day is a Maalox moment.”
That uncertainty makes all predictions about the fate of the GOP tax bill subject to hourly reversal. At any point, McConnell may find himself short of votes for reasons ranging from the health of his members to principled conservative concerns about the deficit.
And then, of course, there remains the embarrassing Roy Moore factor. However the weird Alabama race plays out, it should be remembered that McConnell, in characteristic fashion, cynically tried to placate Moore until it was too late.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.