I broke the holiday silence on Friday to tweet briefly on the Roy Moore sex scandal. That thread could be read as an “I told you so,” though that wasn’t really my intent.
Rather, my intent was to remind people that the fact of Pres. Trump’s upset victory a year ago does not mean that the current drift of the GOP does not come without risks and does not come without costs.
Right now, the folks who need to internalize this the most are social conservatives (here meaning more religious conservatives as opposed to Bill O’Reilly-esque cultural conservatives).
It’s worth remembering that during the 2016 primaries, Trump did much better with less-churched Christians than he did with those who regularly attend. Evangelicals were not particularly enthused about Trump’s candidacy. Also, the Trumpiest of Trump voters tend to say that religion is “very important,” but they are the least likely to attend church regularly.
That may take some of the the edge off the recent PRRI/Brookings poll showing that 72% of white evangelicals now say “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life,” up from 30% in 2011. Some of it, if not all of it.
Anyway, many social conservatives held their noses and voted for Trump because they believed the alternative was a continued progressive assault on religious liberty. For the most part, it has paid off, arguably more so than for other traditional factions of conservatism. The administration is largely delivering conservative judicial nominations. Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate is getting rolled back. At the Supreme Court, the Trump DoJ is supporting the baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Etc.
But having propped open the Overton Window far enough for Trump to enter the White House, there was always the risk that other risky candidates would follow. A party that decides giving the finger to the establishment is a top priority runs the risk of losing its perspective (again with the obligatory caveat that I’ve critiqued party leadership for years for poorly managing its coalition).
Roy Moore is one of the bills coming due, perhaps one of several.
Social conservatives should recognize that Moore was never a candidate of religious liberty. Indeed, they should have recognized this years ago.
Academics may debate “judicial supremacy,” the theory that the courts are the final arbiters of the Constitution. But it’s a far different thing for Moore to have ignored court orders because he conflates the law with his view of scripture. That sort of theocratic leaning has nothing to do with the free exercise of religion. Moore does not appear to acknowledge a separation between church and state (Jefferson’s “wall” concept is debatable; the concept of preventing a government-backed church from impinging on religious liberty is in the marrow of the nation). And Moore endorses a religious test for office, which is expressly forbidden by the Constitution.
Moore is not a candidate of religious liberty; he is a candidate of religious identity politics. If social conservatives want to fight out their issues on the basis of power politics, rather than on the principle of religious liberty, they should be aware of the risks. Once principles are tossed aside, the raw politics had better be good.
It is one thing to support the Little Sisters of the Poor in their fight against the contraceptive mandate. It is another to defend the guy who claims he definitely did not disrobe a 14-year-old, but can’t remember whether he dated teenagers when he was in his thirties, a guy who could not even convince a Hannity panel of his truthfulness. It is one thing to have debated same-sex marriage, but quite another to defend a guy who couldn’t answer in 2015 whether homosexuality should be a capital crime.
And it is more difficult to oust a candidate like Moore when the White House wants to avoid another recap of how Trump has treated women in the past. And it is easier for Grand Old Partisans to fall into the trap of endorsing or defending Moore once they have already lived with Trump.
The recklessness of some GOP primary voters was such that the party could lose a Senate seat that very few thought could be lost a few months ago. And losing that seat would increase the odds that the GOP could lose its majority in the Senate in 2018, especially if other GOP primary voters continue to nominate risky candidates just to satisfy their loathing of the party establishment. And losing the Senate would mean losing the power to confirm Trump’s judicial nominations. That would be a comeuppance for social conservatives every bit as much as it would be for Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell.
OTOH, Moore may yet win election to the Senate. After all, the stakes are high. Some voters will never want to admit they were conned well before this particular scandal was reported. Some will never want to wrestle with the recklessness of their choices, whether in 2017 or in 2016. And some hate the media so much that they will dismiss or ignore this well-reported sex scandal in favor of hand-waving over prior poorly-reported stories.
But if Moore wins, it will be largely at the cost of social conservatives (and perhaps the GOP generally) dropping their principles and squandering their moral authority — with consequences that may linger well beyond this election. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Some conservatives still know this.
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