Doug Jones’s victory in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama on Tuesday poses a quandary to Republicans at all levels—but to none more than President Trump. The results of the race demonstrate the limitations of both his political power and of his self-appointed role as pundit-in-chief. He is more interested in being right than in winning—but on Tuesday, he did neither.
The president offered a series of somewhat contradictory responses to the race between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Late Tuesday, he tweeted:
Congratulations to Doug Jones on a hard fought victory. The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2017
Wednesday morning, he added:
The reason I originally endorsed Luther Strange (and his numbers went up mightily), is that I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2017
If last night’s election proved anything, it proved that we need to put up GREAT Republican candidates to increase the razor thin margins in both the House and Senate.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2017
Like all pundits, Trump wants more than anything to appear correct and oracular. Perhaps that’s why he has already begun shifting his take. Initially, he acknowleded with atypical magnanimity that a win was a win. By Wednesday morning, he was claiming that Republican Roy Moore was somehow dealt an unfair hand, with the deck stacked against him.
The president really did warn that Moore might be unelectable—and he did so even before sexual-misconduct allegations against him surfaced. “Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election. It’s all about the general,” Trump said in September, stumping for Senator Luther Strange in the GOP primary for the race. “On Wednesday morning, the new race begins. You've got to beat a Democrat. Luther is going to win easily and Roy's going to have a hard time winning.” Yet even then, Trump seemed to be hedging on his endorsement of Strange, a bland Republican foot soldier who bore far less ideological and stylistic resemblance to the president than did Moore. “I might have made a mistake, and I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake,” he said of his endorsement.
Yet the idea that the deck was stacked against Moore—what a tricky passive-voice formulation!—is preposterous. Until Tuesday, there were few states more reliably Republican than Alabama, which hadn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years. (That Democrat, Richard Shelby, soon changed his registration and has become a stalwart Republican; his condemnation of Moore over the weekend was one of the many final nails in Moore’s coffin.) Moore’s weaknesses were peculiar to him and included far more than just the sexual-misconduct allegations, as Trump himself acknowledged in September.
While Barack Obama was sometimes mocked for playing the role of political analyst, Trump exhibits an even more pronounced tendency to do so, and as with Obama, it seems to interfere with his effectiveness as a political leader. Trump’s incoherent analysis—his fantastical theory of a race for Senate in Alabama as somehow being fought on hostile ground for Republicans—would not matter much were he indeed merely a pundit; pundits get things wrong all the time, usually with few repercussions. Trump’s problem is that he has to govern the nation and lead the Republican Party, and his difficulties in grappling with his own role in events could make those tasks even harder for him than they have proven so far.
Trump has the dubious distinction of backing two losing candidates in the race, first Strange and then Moore, which yielded not only a political black eye but also a pair of embarrassing revelations. Since 2010, the Republican Party has been at war with its base, with party insiders favoring candidates they see as more electable (Mike Castle, Richard Lugar, Marco Rubio) and voters thumbing their noses at them (Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Trump himself). Trump’s promise was not only that he came from that insurgent element of the party but that he could marshal its power.
Alabama showed twice that this was untrue. In the initial primary and the subsequent runoff election, Trump could not bend the GOP base to his will, proving unable to persuade Republican voters to support Luther Strange. Trump argues that he made the race a lot closer than it would have been, and he’s probably right—but as Hillary Clinton can attest, that doesn’t count. Then, in the general election, Trump’s late-but-aggressive effort to turn out his supporters in support of Moore also failed. The final results demonstrated a vast enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters, a gap that was no doubt exacerbated by Moore’s particular flaws, but which echoes the similar gap in November’s elections in Virginia, and even in the June special election for U.S. House in Georgia, where Jon Ossoff lost but still exceeded expectations for a Democrat in a special election in that district—and on average, that holds true for the 68 special elections held so far in 2017. If Trump can neither persuade the base to change its mind nor get it to turn out, what magic does he have?
Insofar as the deck was stacked against Moore, Trump did much of the stacking. Moore’s many flaws as a candidate notwithstanding, Trump’s immense unpopularity has contributed to the enthusiasm gap between the two parties, and his survival of multiple allegations of sexual assault, and his own admission of such, during the presidential campaign helped to launch the current moment of backlash against men accused of sexual misconduct. As Rosie Gray writes, Moore and his backers thought they could replicate Trump’s survival in the 2016 election, but the political moment has shifted, in part thanks to Trump.
Good candidates would, as the president tweeted, help the GOP. But Trump threw his weight behind two flawed candidates in this election. Other Republican candidates and officeholders see the bind they’re in: They cannot break from the president, lest they incur the wrath of his supporters, but neither can they throw their lot in with him, as that will pull them down, as it did Ed Gillespie in Virginia. The Republican margins in Congress are indeed razor-thin, but the president is a major factor in that, and his failure to grapple with his own role continues to shave them thinner.