Roy Moore (R-19th Century) lost to Doug Jones (D-Surprised) in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions (R-I Don’t Recall). But it’s not really clear who actually won. Dems–and certainly Jones–might take issue with that. Well, fair enough, it would be churlish not recognize this as a big fat blue W, a triumph achieved in the reddest of red states. As those sort of wins are rare as principled legislators on the Senate floor, it’s hard to begrudge them a whoop and a victory lap.
Funnily enough, though, this was also a win for Republicans or, to be more accurate, the least painful form of defeat. In this election, no positive outcome was possible for the GOP. Moore gets elected and Republicans either seat someone credibly charged with sexual abuse of minors, or expel one of their own. Political hot potato doesn’t do that scenario justice. That’s a tuber of incandescent sizzle, a pickup-sized root vegetable packing more capsaicin than a jalapeno. A Moore win would have forced the Senate GOP to choke down that sucker whole while the entire nation watched their faces turn red and tears squirt from their eyes. No sane Republican wanted that for their party; it would’ve been preface to civil war or moral disarmament, and maybe both.
Some Republicans–Donald Trump and the RNC–were clearly willing to take those risks and threw in their lot with Moore. Plenty of other Republicans–Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Richard Shelby, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, etc.–approached the special election with clearer eyes and colder calculations about the costs of a Moore victory. The GOP grownups actively opposed Moore and/or supported Jones for a simple reason. The only way forward they could see for their party was to have their own candidate lose. Tuesday’s result gave this pretty large group of Republicans what they wanted. They won. By losing.
Unfortunately for Republicans, their through-the-looking-glass political calculus of gaining political victories with defeats is not limited to this one special election. The no-Moore gambit isn’t a one-off tactical hit, a losing a battle to win a war sort of thing. The Republican Party seems to have adopted a full blown strategy of winning by losing. They won the presidency, but lost the dignity of that office. They won a Congressional majority, but lost the ability to govern themselves. They won control of government, but lost the faith of the people. They won power, but seem to have lost their soul. When you’re reduced to calculating whether to support a suspected pedophile or attack a candidate fair-and-square selected by your own voters, you really are at the point where losses count as wins.
Voters on Tuesday, no doubt, saved the Republican Party an enormous amount of humiliation and discomfort. Yet while Alabama prevented the GOP from publicly airing its crimson hide in a painful expulsion debate, this was balm for a symptom rather than a cure for the underlying problem. The problem is the Republican Party is imploding under its own success. They have somehow got themselves into a corner where their “victories” exact enormous–potentially existential–political costs. Yet they can’t afford too many losses, because losing runs the risk of exposing the GOP as a party more than willing to lose its principles as long as it wins power.
Thinking Republicans–and, despite recent evidence to the contrary, there’s still plenty of these folks around–not only recognize this, they’re agonizing over it. This list includes people like Charlie Sykes, David Brooks, George Will, Jeff Flake, and many more, a long list of those reluctant to accept a majority stake in government for their party if it means choking down the populist-flavored Kool-Aid Donald Trump is serving up.
So where does this leave the Republican Party? Other than cleaved in two, it’s hard to say. The populist and establishment wings are openly warring with each other and it’s not clear what, if anything, holds them together as a coherent political force. There’s no discernible consistent philosophical or intellectual principle driving its policy agenda. The primary motivation behind the party increasingly seems to be the pursuit of power because it makes it easier to stick it to a varied group of people and institutions–immigrants, the poor, environmentalists, scientists, the media, public schools, higher education, and especially Democrats–they see as causing them grief. The closest thing to a guiding set of principle seems to be an infomercial pitch that the new and improved tax-cuts-for-the-rich will cure everything–Unemployment! Manufacturing malaise! Healthcare! Whooping cough! Zits! This doesn’t seem to be fooling anyone any more, including large swaths of the party faithful. It’s getting harder and harder even for GOP stalwarts to buy into the populist piffle and accusatory tweet storms that increasingly characterize Republican governance.
Maybe the party could win by suffering a massive loss in the 2018 midterms. A period in the wilderness might give it a shot at reflection and rejuvenation, or at least a chance for its dueling wings to get into the full-throated death match members of both camps are clearly lusting for. Whoever emerged from that throw-down would at least give us a clear idea of whether the GOP really wants to be the center-right party of Reagan or the champion of alt-right populism. Regardless, if they retain control of government in their current state there’s a very real possibility they cease to be a viable political party in any form, at least over the long term. Unfortunately for the GOP, its midterm opponent is the Democratic Party, which rarely misses an opportunity to snatch defeat from the mandibles of victory. So, Republicans might have one more victory left in them. And that means they will lose. By winning.