For an infuriating example of the depths to which simple-minded partisan dead-enders will sink in the course of defending their political tribe, look no further than what Jerry Pow, the chairman of the Republican party in Alabama's Bibb County, said when asked about yesterday's Washington Post report detailing allegations that GOP Senate Candidate Roy Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 and serving as a district attorney.
"I would vote for Judge Moore because I wouldn't want to vote for Doug," Pow told Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, referring to Moore's Democratic opponent, Doug Jones. "I'm not saying I support what he did."
To be clear: Pow is not denying the charges, as Moore has, or saying that he wants to wait for more facts to come in. Instead, Pow is conceding that even if he were certain the allegations were true he would vote for Moore anyway, simply because he would not want to vote for a Democrat.
Pow is not an outlier. Amongst Alabama Republicans, Moore can do no wrong. "There is nothing to see here," Alabama State Auditor and Moore-supporter Jim Ziegler told the Washington Examiner. "The allegations are that a man in his early 30s dated teenage girls."
In the interests of clarifying what, exactly, the allegations are, it's worth quoting the Post story, which opens with a description of Moore in 1979 chatting up a 14-year-old girl at a courthouse while her mother attended at a custody hearing inside. The woman alleges that Moore initiated sexual contact in follow-up encounters:
Days later, she says, he picked her up around the corner from her house in Gadsden, drove her about 30 minutes to his home in the woods, told her how pretty she was and kissed her. On a second visit, she says, he took off her shirt and pants and removed his clothes. He touched her over her bra and underpants, she says, and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear.
Again, Moore was 32 at the time, and serving in the district attorney's office. It is utterly impossible to imagine an Alabama Republican party official declaring there is nothing to see about an allegation like this if it were directed at a Democrat.
What many of the reactions to the Post story make abundantly clear is that all that really matters to Moore's supporters is that he is a fellow Republican. Dale, the Star reported, collected quotes from GOP leaders in the state yesterday and found a widespread willingness to continue supporting Moore simply because of his party affiliation.
One dismissed the entire story as a "Democratic—Democrat—ploy to discredit" Moore. The woman who made the allegation was a Trump supporter. She did not push the story herself, but gave her account only after the Post, in the course of reporting on Moore, convinced her to go on the record. The Post corroborated several details of her story, and backed its own report with more than 30 interviews with individuals who knew Moore during the time when the events are alleged to have occurred.
Covington County GOP Chairman William Blocker delivered an enthusiastic "Yeah!" when asked whether he'd vote for Moore even if there were material proof of sexual abuse. "There is NO option to support to support Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee." Blocker told Dale. "When you do that, you are supporting the entire Democrat party."
Blocker, in other words, has a line that he will not cross. That line is supporting the Democrat Party.
Apparently it has never crossed the mind of either Blocker or Pow that it is possible to vote for someone other than a Republican or a Democrat, to vote for a third party, to write in a candidate, or even, heaven forbid, to abstain from voting at all. But the partisan mind can conceive only of binary outcomes, zero-sum contests, wins and losses for the team. It cannot imagine any other goals or values.
Senate Republicans have taken a tougher line on Moore following the Post story.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who supported Moore's primary opponent, incumbent Luther Strange, said that Moore should step aside if the allegations are true, a sentiment echoed widely amongst upper chamber Republicans, including Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered no qualifications, saying that the allegations themselves were not only "disturbing" but "disqualifying" and that Moore should immediately step aside. The national GOP is cutting off ties with Moore.
There is a certain amount of self-dealing hedging in the McConnell-style if-trueism that leaves room for Republicans to shrug off the story down the road should Moore stay in the race and win. But it has the virtue, at least, of showing what they will not tolerate in a potential Republican senator.
Because even before yesterday's Post story came out, there were plenty of reasons to completely dissociate from Moore, a bully, a blowhard, and a lifelong opponent of immigration and civil rights.
In 2005 he argued that "homosexual conduct should be illegal," and last year he declared the Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage worse than an 1850s ruling upholding slavery. He's dodged questions about executing individuals for homosexual conduct. He ran on as an anti-immigration hardliner but didn't even know what DACA, an immigration program started under President Obama, was. On two separate occasions, he's been pushed out of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to comply with legal directives. Moore, who first lost his Supreme Court for refusing to remove a display of the 10 Commandments from his courtroom, has argued repeatedly that Rep. Keith Ellison should not be allowed to serve in Congress because he is a Muslim.
After Moore won the primary to become the GOP nominee last month, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the number two Republican in the Senate, was asked about Moore's stances on Ellison and making homosexual conduct illegal. Cornyn said he supported Moore anyway. "I don't have to agree with somebody to support them over the Democratic nominee. I support the nominee of my party." Notice that Cornyn does not even pretend to be working in service of a policy agenda here. His goals are strictly partisan.
One of the few Republicans who seems genuinely disturbed by all of this is Jeff Flake, who tweeted Pow's comments and wondered, "Come on Republicans. Is this who we are? This cannot be who we are." Flake stood out amongst Senate Republicans for his early opposition to Moore, and he recently announced his retirement from the Senate with a blistering speech that blasted his party's belligerent nativism under President Trump and its unwillingness to speak out firmly against boorish behavior. With this tweet, as with many of his other recent statements, you get the sense that he is not really asking the question but wrestling with the ongoing realization that yes, in fact, this is, in fact, what the Republican Party is.
Come on, Republicans. Is this who we are? This cannot be who we are. https://t.co/Fp0xnwOdqz
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) November 10, 2017
But it is also, at some level, what political parties are. They exist for the purpose of self-enhancement and self-preservation, to make beneficial policy compromises impossible, and to make it possible for large groups of people to excuse and accommodate the behavior of people like Roy Moore. And although it is not equivalent, you can see a similar tendency right now on the other side too, with Democratic senators leaving open the possibility that they will continue to stand by Sen. Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, who is now on trial for bribery and corruption, even if he is convicted. The instinctive willingness to shrug off awful behavior in order to protect the party is a bipartisan phenomenon.
What far too many of the GOP defenses of Moore, both before and after the new allegations, demonstrate is that the endgame of reflexive partisan loyalty is turning a blind eye to bad behavior and bad policy in the service of consolidating political power for its own sake. Partisanship, at its worst, becomes an excuse for almost anything, no matter how awful, for the sole reason that well, you wouldn't want to vote for the other guy.