One of the most famous (albeit mildly sick) quotes in politics was popularized in the early 1980s by Louisiana’s legendary scoundrel and 4-time governor, Edwin Edwards. During one of his many political comebacks, Edwards boasted: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” He wasn’t, and Edwards, a Democrat, indeed won. These days, you have to wonder if either of those things would even matter.
In 2017, the whole world is watching a different bizarre political spectacle in the American South, as the Republican Party just can’t quit Roy Moore, its Senate candidate in a critical special election next month. This even as allegations pile up that, as a 30-something prosecutor, Moore trolled for young and sometimes underage teen girls at the mall, the YMCA and even dance recitals, and did some horrible things the times he caught up to them.
It’s too late for Republicans to yank Moore off the December 12 ballot, so any action to undercut Moore — promoting a write-in candidate as an alternative, for example — would surely mean victory for Democrat Doug Jones. And the loss of one Senate vote for Republicans — who currently hold a slim and cantankerous 52-48 majority — would dim any hopes for the party’s agenda of tax cuts throwing dollars at big corporations and billionaires and pennies (if that) at the rest of us. So the new GOP mantra is, “Vote for the alleged teen molester, it’s important.”
Alabana’s governor, Kay Ivey, said that while she believes the multiple women making lurid allegations against Moore, she plans to vote for him anyway. She told the Alabama newspapers that “we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions. So that’s what I plan to do, vote for Republican nominee Roy Moore.”
The next day, a top adviser to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway, made it more explicit: If electing a sexual predator to the U.S. Senate is what it takes to repeal the estate tax and let billionaires pass all their wealth to their trust-fund babies, so be it. “I’m telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through,” said Conway — who’d been sharply critical of Moore a few days early, when it was not yet clear that the GOP is stuck with him.
Trump himself then spiked that football on Tuesday night, offering a full-throated endorsement of Moore because “we don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat,” while claiming that Jones, a former U.S. attorney who famously prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, is “soft on crime.” As for Moore, the president said: “He denies it, and by the way, he totally denies it.”
At long last, America, have you left no sense of decency? This is where we’ve sunk to — high-level leaders arguing it’s worse to vote for someone from an opposing political party than for a man you’ve acknowledged appears to have been a sexual predator of girls as young as 14. The “hot take” on this is to be outraged, because it is outrageous. A government with no morality is intolerable, yet the current state of play is a complicated one.
For one thing, as much as I hate this expression, this is arguably a case where, to some degree, “both sides do it.” In modern U.S. times, the notion that a politician’s private morality is secondary if he’s doing the right thing with his public morality — i.e., his political actions on behalf of the issues that matter to me — originated with those liberal critics of male supremacy who were willing to give Bill Clinton a pass for the way he treated women. Feminist icons like Gloria Steinem raced to Clinton’s defense, in part because giving in to the other “tribe” — the president’s right-wing enemies — would hurt their broader political agenda. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan wrote recently that Clinton “was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation and it was willing—eager—to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur.”
Things aren’t exactly equal. At least on sexual misconduct, you could look at episodes like the Sen. Al Franken allegations and argue that Democrats leaders and partisans seem quicker to go after one of their own — not shocking considering that Democrats tend to be aligned with feminists while Republicans are the party of Rush Limbaugh, who coined the term “feminazi.” But there’s more than just sex in play here: New Jersey Democrats just this weekend tripped over each other to endorse the morally compromised but not convicted Sen. Bob Menendez.
Here’s the complicated nut of it all. Despite the annoying similarities between both parties in areas like their never-ending pasta bowl of addiction to corporate money, there are also differences between the Democrats and Republicans that truly matter to their most enthusiastic partisans. One side believes in science — especially the science of climate change and the need to take urgent action — while the other often denigrates the scientific community. One party fights to end or at least restrict abortion at every turn, while the other supports expansive reproductive rights. You get the point. A lot of voters saying,why should I wave the white flag of surrender on these issues that matter to me and often affect me personally — just to make an example of one guy who happens to be a total creep.
I spoke with Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and communication at Stanford University and one of the nation’s top experts on the psychology of political behavior. He said national surveys have shown that while voters’ affection for their own party has remained constant, their level of loathing for the opposing party has skyrocketed in the last 15 years or so. “If you really hate the other side, then any excuse to bring them down seems appealing,” Krosnick said. When it comes to something like sexual misconduct allegations that carry some ambiguity, voters often fall back on what psychologists call “motivated cognition” — finding a reason to believe the political figures they want to believe.
Krosnick also said voters in other countries tend to judge political leaders more on how effectively they govern than their personal peccadilloes, so one could argue that when a majority of Americans broke that way on Clinton’s sex scandals — giving his government a high approval rating despite disgust at his conduct — it was arguably a sign of sophistication. Casting a ballot in these scenarios, he noted, is really more a reflection of the voter’s morality than the politician’s morality.
Perhaps, but must we be forced to choice between ideology and decency? You could argue for changes that would make it easier for political parties or voters to punish a bad boy in their own “tribe” without rewarding the opposition party. Right now, in most states, the resignation or forced exit of a U.S. senator means that the state’s governor names his or her interim replacement, even if the governor is from a different party. In New Jersey, for example, Democrats might have been less likely to rally around Menendez if not for the fact that Gov. Chris Christie would have replaced him with a Republican. What if the law required a replacement from the departing senator’s party? Likewise, what if — in the Computer Age — we could make it easier for parties to replace scandal-ridden candidates like Roy Moore closer to Election Day?
But those are minor tweaks. The reality is that American politics is always going to call for some level situational ethics in the voting booth. For me, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Clintons, and in 1996 I actually cast a third party vote (for Ross Perot…what was I thinking?) to protest Bill Clinton’s big-donor pandering, but that year I also didn’t see much downside to a protest vote. Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s ethics — especially her huge paydays for speeches to banks and big corporations — troubled me two decades later, but I voted for her as if my life depended on it, because the alternative was an unqualified, race-baiting, sexually predatory clown.
But I’m naive enough to think there’s a drop-dead line somewhere, and a 30-something man hitting on young teens at the Gadsden Mall falls below that. Well below that. I also like to think that if my ultra-liberal “dream date” of a candidate — anti-death penalty, pro-$15 minimum wage and universal heath care, etc. — turned out to have “a Roy Moore problem,” I’d still find one way or another to reject him at the ballot box. But then, I used to think that about most other people, too. I don’t know what to think about morality and politics in the Trump Era anymore, other than that we’re still feeling our way for the jagged absolute rock bottom.