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The GOP’s Morning After

Roy Moore defeat carries an important lesson for religious conservatives
The GOP’s Morning After

Well, that was something, wuddun it? Who’d have ever thought that a Democrat could win a Senate race in Alabama? It wasn’t so much that Doug Jones won as that Roy Moore lost, of course. Moore supporters will blame that scheming Mitch McConnell, or the national media, for the loss, but it pretty much comes down to the fact that Ol’ Roy was a terrible candidate.

Check out the exit poll results to see why Alabamians voted like they did. Note how little the skeezy stories about Roy Moore and teenage girls mattered to voters, in the end. The main driver of the Jones victory appears to be black voters, who turned out in impressive numbers to vote against a candidate who once publicly waxed nostalgic for the good old days of slavery, and the fact that Jones won decisively among 18-29 year old voters.

Presumably the sliver of write-in votes would normally have gone to the Republican candidate, but were cast as a protest vote against Moore (Sen. Richard Shelby said he did this). Had Moore gotten those votes, he would have won. So the pointed refusal of some Republicans to vote for Moore or for Jones made a difference.

The big takeaway here is that Roy Moore’s fate revealed the limits of Trumpism. Trump came out against him in the GOP primary, and lost. Trump came out for him, bigly, in the general … and lost a second time. It’s beyond absurd that Republicans lost Jeff Sessions’s seat in AlabamaAs Ross Douthat writes this morning:

It was not so much a rejection of the Trump agenda as it was a rejection of the whole Trumpian mode of politics, which since our president’s election has consisted of a trebling down on the most unattractive features of his campaign style, a fervent commitment to “triggering the libs” shorn of any populist substance, and a cocksure assumption that any Republicans who aren’t in it for the liberal-triggering care enough about judges and abortion or their tax cuts or the soaring stock market to swallow hard and go along.

Roy Moore, in this sense, was Trump’s Trump — the man who took this mode of politics to 11 and beyond. The president has harassment accusations; the judge had mall-trawling accusations. Trump is a race-baiter; Moore was a stock character from a message movie about Southern bigotry. Trump’s populism mixed reasonable grievances in together with some stupid ones; Moore’s populism was the purest ressentiment. And like Trump but much, much more so, the Moore campaign relied on the assumption that Republicans who didn’t care for who he was and what he represented simply had nowhere else to go.

And they pretty much didn’t go anywhere — except for a small but critical number. Exits show that though Jones lost college educated whites and white women overall, he did much better among them than Obama did. And there was that slim but critical number of write-in voters, who were almost certainly Republicans. I’m not sure how the Independent voters would normally have gone, but they broke in a slight majority for Jones. More Douthat:

So while Moore’s defeat is, yes, specific to him, specific to the statutory rape accusations and all the rest of his problems as a candidate, it’s also a pretty clear foretaste of what you get when you distill white identity politics to a nasty essence and then try to build a coalition around it. You get massive Democratic turnout, black turnout in particular, slumping Republican turnout, and a whole lot of write-in votes from people who should be your supporters. You get Democrats winning elections in the most unlikely places. And you get, quite probably, a Democratic majority in the House and perhaps even the Senate.

This is the thing that Trumpists don’t want to hear: the politics of substance-free populist outrage has its limits. If it can’t win in Alabama, its day is done. It ends up depressing the normal Republican vote and energizing the Democratic vote. Steve Bannon’s plan to take over the Republican Party is going nowhere now.

But this is the thing that standard Washington GOP types don’t want to hear: this does not mean voters want to go back to the status quo.  If they were happy with Republican governance, Trump wouldn’t have won the presidency in the first place.

But now that we’re about a year in to the Trump presidency, it’s clear that he has not delivered on the incredible opportunity history handed him. He has governed mostly as a corporate Republican, and carried on with such loudmouthed recklessness that he’s embarrassed and exhausted a lot conservative voters. Meanwhile, like Roy Moore, he has sent an electric shock through Democrats.

Now, what do House and Senate Republicans do to avoid being wiped out in what, after the Virginia statehouse races this fall, and now the Dems’ big Alabama win, is surely to be a big Democratic wave in 2018? Do they abandon Trump and try to establish an identity distinct from his — and if so, around what issues? Do they have the political imagination and party discipline to embrace the issues that made Trump popular, without the bluster and clownery? More to the point, do they have the guts to defy the party’s donors?

They had better. It’s important. A GOP insider e-mailed me this morning to say:

It’s hard to be a Republican sometimes given how stupid and ham-fisted we can be, but what’s the choice? Yesterday the House Committee handling the new Higher Ed bill met for mark-up. The bill includes language prohibiting the government from taking adverse action against religious schools that receive Title IV funding (student loans) because the government disagrees with the religious mission/practice of the school. The ranking Democrat voted to strip out the language and it stayed in on a party line vote.

This language is a big priority of the CCCU schools [a coalition of Protestant colleges — RD], many of which do everything they possibly can to signal their support for a host of progressive causes, but when push comes to shove they have only Republicans to go to for protection. I’m as frustrated with the GOP as anyone, but then, there is this stuff…

Yes, there is.

This e-mail put me in mind of this passage from the Politics chapter of The Benedict Option. Here, I’m quoting a man named Lance Kinzer, a conservative Evangelical and Kansas Republican who retired from the state legislature and went into full-time lobbying for religious liberty at the state level. It’s worth quoting the entire passage in full. The highlighted (boldfaced) parts indicate my own emphasis:

Yet Kinzer has not left the realm of conventional politics entirely. The first goal of Benedict Option Christians in the world of conventional politics is to secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and build our own institutions. To that end, he travels around the country advocating for religious liberty legislation in state legislatures. Over and over he sees Republican legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. He doesn’t know how much longer they will be able to hold out. Pastors and lay Christian leaders need to prepare their congregations for hard times.

“It’s important to avoid being alarmist, but people really do need to recognize the seriousness of the threats that Christians face, and the real, deep difficulty of the political environment,” Kinzer says. “They need to internalize what it really means to be in a minority posture, and beginning to think like that is really critical. If we don’t, we’re going to continue to operate out of a playbook that has very little to do with the game that’s actually being played.”

Kinzer contends that even as Christians refocus their attention locally and center their attention on building up their own local church communities, they cannot afford to disengage from politics completely. The religious liberty stakes are far too high. What does this mean at the grassroots level? He offers these suggestions:

 Get active at the state and local level, engaging lawmakers with personal letters (not cut – and – paste mailings from activist groups) and face-to-face meetings.

 Focus on prudent, achievable goals. Don’t fight the entire culture war or waste scant political capital on meaningless or needlessly inflammatory gestures.

Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith. Given our political weakness, other objectives have to take a back seat. 

 Reach out to local media and invite coverage of the religious side in particular religious liberty controversies.

 Stay polite and respectful. Don’t validate opponents’ claims that “religious liberty ” is nothing more than an excuse for bigotry.

 Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong.

Most American Christians have no sense of how urgent this issue is and how critical it is for individuals and churches to ris e from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time. We do not have the luxury of continuing to fight the last war.

“We are facing the real risk that the work of the church, and its ability to form our children according to the things we believe are most important in life, is under threat by a hostile government,” warns Kinzer. “And I don’t think it’s alarmist to say so. ”

I want you to consider that if the federal government barred government-backed student loans from going to religious colleges that, for reasons of conscience, discriminated in any way against LGBT students, most of those colleges would cease to exist. That’s how dependent many colleges and universities are on student loans. The Democratic Party is eager to do this; note the GOP insider’s observation that the only reason that provision didn’t make it into the bill was a Republican majority on the committee. That’s how close it is. Given how hostile the Democratic Party is to religion, the survival of many Christian colleges may literally depend on maintaining a Republican majority. This is not just political talk.

Given that, do you see, conservative Christian readers, how irresponsible it is to be pointlessly inflammatory? How this sort of thing — from a prominent Christian college president, no less! — deeply damages the cause?


If we don’t stop it now, the Trumpist politics of “let’s tick off the liberals” is going to be devastating to religious liberty. The country as a whole is narrowly divided. As we saw last night in Alabama, it is possible to lose even safe Republican seats if what the party offers to voters is an embarrassing, bomb-throwing clown who only depresses Republican turnout and juices Democratic turnout. You simply cannot rely on the instincts of Republican voters to pull the lever for any yellow dog the party puts up. (And note well that it wasn’t the DC party that ran Roy Moore, but a plurality of Alabama Republican voters that put him in the race.) And you can’t live in such a bubble that you don’t pay attention to the effect your candidates have on incentivizing Democrats and Independents to vote against the GOP.

To repeat Lance Kinzer’s advice: Religious conservatives must be realistic about the fact that we are a minority in this country now, and that we face a very difficult political environment. Braying and praying for #MAGA might feel good, but it’s going to cost us massively in this post-Christian landscape. We have no margin for error here.

UPDATE: A reader comments:

I’ve posted here before under my own name, but am actually a bit afraid to do so now. I am one of those conservative Christians who has not voted for a Democrat for…let’s just say a long time, longer than some of you have been alive. I live in Alabama and agonized for weeks about this election, having observed Moore’s nuttiness for years. As late as Monday night I had decided not to vote for him. As late as my drive to the polls on Tuesday I had changed my mind and decided I would after all. But when I actually had the ballot in my hand I just couldn’t do it, and wrote in somebody instead.

So I am one of that handful of people who put Jones over the top. I do not feel good about it. I feel terrible in fact. My wife is hardly speaking to me–she detests Moore but voted for him in the interests of the bigger picture. And yet I think a Moore victory might have been a win-the-battle-lose-the-war event.

No wisdom or counsel to offer. All I can say is that this whole situation is terrible. It is, as many have said, a cold civil war, and it isn’t going to get better. If you have any notion that the victors in this election are feeling the least bit conciliatory or magnanimous, you are wrong. I listened to them on tv last night and on Facebook this morning.



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