In the home stretch of the 2016 election—after dozens of Republicans had completed the pitiful cycle of rescinding and then resubmitting their endorsements of Donald Trump—Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama set about to define those Republicans by association with their party’s presidential nominee.
“They’re on tape,” Obama said at a campaign rally in Las Vegas last October, just weeks after video footage of Trump boasting about committing sexual assault with impunity came to light. “They’re on the record. And now that Trump’s poll numbers are cratering, suddenly [they say], well, no, I’m not supporting him. Too late. You don’t get credit for that.”
After all that’s transpired in the ensuing 14 months, it’s strange to think that there was ever a time during the election that Republicans didn’t own everything Trump said and did. But, remarkably, Republicans managed to set Trump apart from themselves as a kind of anomaly who just happened to become the titular head of their party, and, (just as remarkably in hindsight) leading Democrats helped Republicans underwrite this deception.
Before the Access Hollywood tape surfaced, Obama and Clinton were determined to isolate Trump—treat him as an aberration, make Republicans comfortable with defecting—and then win the election on the strength a unified front of both Democrats and anti-Trump conservatives.
“This is not Republicanism as we have known it,” Hillary Clinton famously warned in her August 2016 speech about Trump and the alt-right.
This turned out to be not just an intellectual error, but a strategic one as well. Republicans were in thrall to what we now call Trumpism before Trump came around, and when chips were down, they hardened their alliance with his loyalists rather than splinter into factions. That was all it took for Republicans to unify the government under Trump while simultaneously preserving, for a time, conceptual distance in the public imagination between themselves and Trump’s most toxic qualities.
That conceptual space has largely evaporated, but at unknown expense. It should never have been allowed to open.
The persistence of Roy Moore’s Senate campaign in Alabama offers Republicans no similar quarter. Moore—a credibly accused pedophile—can’t boast a Trump-like history of heterodoxy. He has been a right-wing authoritarian, theocrat, and folk hero for a very long time. Should Moore win, his victory would not force Democrats into a new cycle of recriminations, the way Trump’s did, but it would underscore the fact that Republicans have doubled down on the Faustian bet they made last year.
Then as now, Republicans managed to sever their ties with their morally indefensible candidate for about a week. In exchange for what may prove to be a decisive vote for corporate tax cuts and unqualified federal judges, Republicans have shown they will tolerate nearly bottomless depravity. To those ends they have declined to discourage people from voting for Moore. To the same ends, they would most likely look past the impropriety of Trump firing Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
But for all these reasons, Republicans won’t be able to differentiate themselves from Moore the way they were able to differentiate themselves from Trump.
Speaking in 1999 of his decision as then-chairman of the Ethics Committee to edge fellow Republican Bob Packwood out of office, the Senate’s current majority leader, Mitch McConnell, demonstrated a capacity to place higher values over politics. “We Republicans were aware during the Packwood debate that we would likely lose that Senate seat if Senator Packwood was removed from office. So we had a choice: retain the Senate seat or retain our honor? We chose honor and never looked back.”
In 1991, when David Duke became the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in Louisiana, President George H.W. Bush managed to communicate clearly that he’d rather his party lose the election than be associated with a Klansman.
“When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign,” Bush said. “So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he’s attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”
Today, the Republican National Committee is funding Roy Moore’s candidacy, the Republican president has endorsed him, and the Republican majority leader has taken no lasting steps to discourage Alabama’s Republican voters from electing Moore. They have greased the skids for his election. And Democrats stand better prepared than they were last year to hold Republicans to account for their alliance with him. On Monday, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) (no relation) (obviously) implored the Senate Sergeant at Arms to prepare for “the threat to the safety of the young men and women working in the United State Senate Page Program if Roy Moore wins.” Democrats in the Senate would have the opportunity to force Republicans to re-embrace Moore all over again by forcing votes on efforts to add him to Senate committees. And having forced two leading members of Congress to resign in just the past two weeks for far lesser misconduct, Democrats would be poised to hound Republicans endlessly about their refusal to give a pedophile the same treatment.
Moore deserves to lose this race. If he loses, Republicans will learn belatedly that the politics of tolerating moral and ethical depravity for near-term gain can ultimately cost them dearly, even in the Bible Belt. But there wouldn’t be much consolation for them in winning either. Republican politics explains Roy Moore’s nomination. Republican politics would explain his general election victory, too. But the whole country is watching, and most of it will be horrified by what it sees if that happens.