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Opinion: Trump’s Alabama Attitude Adjustment

Even voters in the Deep South are figuring out who’s behind the bile

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones celebrates his victory over Judge Roy Moore. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama Democrat Doug Jones celebrates his victory over Judge Roy Moore. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“Because something is happening here But you don’t know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?”

That 1965 Bob Dylan lyric qualifies as half right. Doug Jones certainly figured it out. After all, Jones is now the first mainstream Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Alabama since New Dealer Lister Hill.

But with any special election, it is tempting to over-interpret the results. Roy Moore made such ill-fated Republican Senate nominees as Christine O’Donnell (“I’m not a witch”) and Todd Akin (who talked about “legitimate rape”) seem like Athenian Greeks in the era of Pericles.

It wasn’t only the on-the-record allegations about Moore preying on girls as young as 14. This was a Senate candidate in 2017 who suggested that the last time America was great was before the Civil War: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another.”

Donald Trump has publicly claimed that he never would have appointed Jeff Sessions attorney general if he had known that the former Alabama senator would recuse himself from the Russia investigation. But maybe the president would have also hesitated if he had known that a Democrat would end up holding the Sessions seat until at least 2020.

What’s to know?

When he was elected, Trump knew little about Washington except that his name was emblazoned on a hotel. As a result, the former reality-show host filled his administration with congressional Republicans who, like Sessions, held seemingly impregnable seats.

The key word here is “seemingly.” Even before Alabama, the Democrats won at least 46 percent of the vote in special House elections in Kansas, Georgia and South Carolina. But because the over-hyped Jon Ossoff lost the June race in the Atlanta suburbs despite raising a staggering $30 million, the Democrats ended up with might-have-beens instead of bragging rights.

Watch: So Special: 4 More Special Elections on the Way, So Far

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Alabama was so reliably Republican that the networks (to save money) did not even bother to conduct an exit poll in the state in 2016. But there are numbers in Tuesday night’s Senate exit polls that should be chilling to the White House — if only reality could get through the force field of Trump’s ego.

Even though Trump romped home in Alabama with 62 percent in 2016, his approval rating among voters Tuesday was a lackluster 48 percent. According to the Gallup Poll, the only two presidents since World War II to have an average national approval rating that low in their first years in office were Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter. And they were both defeated for a second term.

It doesn’t take a demographic expert to figure out that depending heavily on older white voters — those who remember Ed Sullivan — is not a formula for enduring electoral success. But that is the essence of the Trump coalition. And it was telling that in Alabama, the Democrat won the support of more than 60 percent of voters younger than 45.

Before Alabama, there was a fatalistic streak among anti-Trump voters. The dominant feeling was that if Trump could defy the polls and every rule of political decency to win in 2016, then the laws of gravity codified by Isaac Newton somehow don’t apply to bilious billionaires from New York.

That is one of the reasons that so many liberals have been concocting Robert Mueller rescue fantasies. It is almost as if they have lost faith in the concept of political comeuppance.

Message received?

Alabama voters delivered that comeuppance with a vengeance — defeating the Trump-endorsed Senate candidates in both the Republican primary and on Tuesday.

Maybe there is significance, after all, to Trump’s approval ratings bumping around at Nixonian levels during Watergate. Or that a new national Monmouth University Poll gives Democrats a 15 point lead when adults were asked what party they planned to support in the congressional elections.

While predicting the president’s behavior is like trying to monitor a nuclear chain reaction, it is intriguing that Trump was uncharacteristically low-key Wednesday in the aftermath of his Alabama attitude adjustment.

Asked about the upset during a luncheon meeting with Republican tax negotiators, Trump said mildly, “As the leader of the party, I would have liked to have had the seat. I want to endorse the people who are running.”

Then, during an afternoon tax event at the White House, Trump actually followed the script.

There were no scathing off-topic attacks on Democratic women senators. And instead of excoriating reporters, Trump proudly pointed out, like a child burnishing his image for Santa Claus, “I used the words ‘media’ … as opposed to ‘fake news media.’”

Trump highlighted the underlying GOP problem when he went out of his way to deny the reality that the tax bill was a giveaway for the rich. But that is what most voters believe, with more than 60 percent in a recent Quinnipiac University poll saying that the tax plan favors the wealthy over the middle class.

Any effort to spin the tax cut as manna for middle-class families is complicated by the latest version, which cuts the top rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent. And Trump’s claim that a typical family “earning $75,000 will see an income tax cut of more than $2,000” will soon be tested by the realities of the new withholding schedules.

Odds are that the Toxic Trump will reemerge before the weekend. The least disciplined president in history (and that counts Warren Harding) cannot long hide who he is. And the message from Alabama is that even voters in the Deep South are beginning to see the real man behind the bile and bombast.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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