The British journalist and sometime-politician Winston Churchill supposedly once said that Americans, having exhausted all alternatives, will do the right thing. If Churchill were writing today, he might offer a parallel formulation: The Republican Party, having exhausted all other alternatives, will do the politically expedient thing—an axiom demonstrated vividly over the last couple days in the GOP’s decision to support U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama after all.
On Monday, President Trump made explicit what he had long made clear in practice: He wholeheartedly endorses Moore for Senate, despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls. Later in the evening, the Republican National Committee announced it would reopen the money pipeline to Alabama it had shut off when the party at large cut Moore loose—or so it seemed—in November.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had been one of the earliest and most stalwart Moore denouncers, seems to have backed off his most fiery statements. On November 13, McConnell said, “I think he should step aside.” On Sunday, on ABC’s This Week, he hedged: “I’m going to let the people of Alabama make the call,” adding that “the Ethics Committee will have to consider the matters that have been litigated in the campaign should that particular candidate win.”
The belated reconciliation with Moore seems practically inevitable in retrospect. Roughly a month ago, when the first allegations against Moore were reported, I noted that the scenario posed not only a moral test for the Republican Party, but an uncomfortably familiar one. In timing, type, and circumstances, it was remarkably similar to what happened with Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. About a month before the election, The Washington Post produced a highly damaging report about the candidate, with credible allegations of sexual misbehavior—in Trump’s case, boasting about committing sexual assault; in Moore’s case, multiple stories about him pursuing women under 18, in one case allegedly committing felony crimes with a 14-year-old, and in another allegedly sexually assaulting a 16-year-old. In both cases, the following few days produced even more allegations. In both cases, top Republicans fairly quickly expressed their disgust and withdrew their support.
But eventually, Republicans came back to Trump. Multiple officeholders who said they couldn’t in good conscience support him had by election day quietly reversed their position and reaffirmed their support for the GOP nominee. Nor was Trump the first time this had happened. In 2012, after Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri said that women couldn’t get pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape,” the party abandoned him. But it later became clear that the National Republican Senatorial Committee, whose chairman Senator John Cornyn had said there was no chance of a reversal, had quietly funneled three-quarters of a million dollars to Akin late in the race.
Of course, the parallel between the Trump and Moore cases just goes to persuade some backers of both men that it’s all a set up by the press, out to get conservative candidates. But you don’t have to take the liberal media’s word for it. Take McConnell, who said, “I believe the women.” Or Ivanka Trump, who said, “There’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children. I’ve yet to see a valid explanation and I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.” Or Kellyanne Conway, who said, “Whatever the facts end up being, the premise, of course, the principle, the incontrovertible principle, is that there is no Senate seat worth more than a child.” Or even take the White House, which, before Trump weighed in, said that if the allegations against Moore were true, he should step aside.
Since then, no one has offered any evidence that the allegations against Moore aren’t true. In fact, there have only been more—more accusers, many of them with convincing circumstantial evidence, and who told their stories to acquaintances and family members at the time. Other reports have focused on Moore’s well-known taste for young girls and his supposed banishment from the mall in Gadsden, Alabama, for creeping teenagers out.
Moore has flatly denied all allegations but refused to refute them with any evidence; in fact, he has gotten only more brazen, now claiming that he doesn’t even know accusers who he last month admitted having known. That denial led another woman to bring forth evidence of her teenaged ties to Moore. Debbie Gibson had already described their relationship, but upset by his denial, she on Tuesday produced handwritten notes from Moore along with her annotations from the time.
So what has changed? The polling has. When the GOP abandoned Moore, he was leading, but the moral stakes were clear. Then the polling followed, with an NRSC poll showing Democrat Doug Jones with an astounding (and outlying) 12-point lead. But since Thanksgiving, as attention has drifted away from the race, Moore has floated back to a small lead over Jones. And Republican leaders have apparently begun to feel a little remorse over their moral stand, wondering if maybe it’s better to have a Republican in the Senate than a Democrat. After all, if Moore can get away with just pretending nothing ever happened, and Trump can get away with claiming that he isn’t on a tape he clearly is on, why should other Republicans not follow suit?
The one group that remains to be watched is the NRSC. Its chairman, Senator Cory Gardner, was quick to condemn Moore, saying that he should step aside, and if he were elected, the Senate should expel him. NRSC Executive Director Chris Hansen wrote a viral tweet mocking Moore for telling McConnell, “Bring it on,” which Hansen noted was also the title of a movie about high-school cheerleaders. The NRSC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the recent moves; CNN cited an NRSC source who said the group was still staying out.
As for the other leaders of the party, with their brief separation and then reconciliation with Moore, they have set their own trap, establishing abandonment as a moral bar and then breaking their own standard in short order. Politically, they may get away with it, at least in the short term. If the polls are right, Moore will win and head to the Senate. Nor can the GOP lose much credibility for taking sexual assault seriously; after all, as long as Trump is president and the party’s de facto leader, there’s no credibility to lose.
Longer term, there’s more potential for damage. The reversal is more embarrassing because of Moore’s disdain for the party. A deeply flawed candidate even before the sexual-misconduct allegations—Moore was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for defying federal courts, blamed 9/11 on lack of faith, and uses racist slurs casually—he practically reveled in Washington’s denunciations, making plain how little he was beholden to the rest of the GOP. Now much of the rest of the GOP is slinking back to him.
This, too, sounds familiar: It’s just like Trump. If elected, Moore, like Trump, is likely to be an agent of chaos in Washington, frequently defying and wrecking plans of party leaders. Either GOP leaders have decided that they like the way Washington runs under Trump (there’s little evidence to support this), or the president’s takeover of the Republican Party is complete enough that it doesn’t matter. As for the chaos of Trump’s Washington, the Alabama Senate race seems poised to deliver more, and Moore, of the same.