Roy Moore’s toppling in Alabama’s Senate race last month has many predicting that we’ve turned a corner on the politics of stupidity and hate.
In particular, the binoculars of opinion polling spy a “wave” election next November, flushing Republicans out of Congress as the Red Sea washed over Pharaoh’s army. This would rebuke President Trump, who endorsed Moore (despite accusations that he has a thing for teenage girls) because of their shared prejudices.
Maybe it’s my conservative instinct to plan for the worst, but I fear we’re being too sanguine.
Though I’m a registered Republican, I’d be delighted if control of Congress flipped to the Democrats. Only an electoral thrashing will break the back of the modern GOP’s toxic, animating addictions: populist bigotry a la Moore and Trump and pimping for plutocracy a la Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, exemplified by their public stickup, er, tax bill.
Certainly, if the voting were today, we’d see a wave. Historically, the party holding the White House fares poorly in mid-term elections. With Trump about as popular as overflowing sewage, Democrats are salivating at the prospect of winning traditionally Republican House districts.
The grassroots enthusiasm is with the Democrats now, abetted by the fact that the alt-right continues to mull primary challenges to incumbent Republicans, threatening civil war that could further weaken the party. Adding to the GOP's pain is the high number of Republican House retirements.
But the election isn’t today; it’s almost a year off, with ample time for events to upend the best-laid plans of Democrats and pollsters. For all its woes, the GOP has banked real advantages this year.
Reports of the death of the politics of hate may be greatly exaggerated.
Herewith, a pessimist’s primer:
Moore almost won. He got just under half the vote in a special election with lower turnout. With more voters showing up last year, Trump, Moore’s alter ego, swept Alabama by a wider margin than the previous three Republican nominees.
One Vox analyst says that, absent the “fluke” of sexual misconduct accusations spilling out against Moore just before the general election, he probably would have won. If so, Alabamians would have chosen as senator a candidate who — long before the sexual allegations — questioned Muslims’ fitness for office based on their religion and wants to criminalize homosexuality. Reports of the death of the politics of hate may be greatly exaggerated.
The GOP has gerrymandered the House up the wazoo. The last time we had a wave, in the 2010 midterms, Republicans surfed it. That gave them control of redrawing congressional district lines after the 2010 Census, locking in their majorities.
The resulting House map has a “record-setting bias” against Democrats, in one analyst’s words. About two-thirds of the seats they’ll need to win this year to retake the House “may be permanently out of reach,” the Washington Post wrote. (The Supreme Court has several gerrymandering cases or potential cases pending, involving both Republican and Democratic district-drawing.)
Admittedly, these conclusions came before Moore’s loss, and now even some Republicans fear that Democrats may bowl strikes in traditionally Republican districts in November. But as New York Times columnist David Brooks notes, the tax bill, bad as it is, will dole out dollars to many Americans (for example, with a larger child credit) in the imminent future. That can buy a lot of gratitude as Republicans remind voters of the largesse between now and November 6.
The Senate "is probably out of reach" for Democrats. This pre-Alabama observation by one Vox analyst was made despite the Republicans’ razor-thin Senate majority, which became even slimmer (51-49) after Doug Jones vanquished Moore. Being so tantalizingly close to the majority raises Democratic prospects. But — they’ll be more exposed at the polls on Election Day, defending three times as many seats as the GOP. Hence this prediction: The party of Obama has to win big just to keep its current ranks.
I know the foregoing sounds like on-the-one-hand-on-the-other uncertainty, and pundits aren’t seers. (Ask President Hillary Clinton.) But Trump’s gross unfitness for office, and congressional Republicans’ serfdom on behalf of the one percent, make what-if dreaming more tempting than usual.
The 2016 election returns revealed more voters driven by (or at least not repelled by) racism and xenophobia in the national woodwork than we realized. Though not a majority of Americans, there were enough of them to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office — and to get Roy Moore awfully close to the U.S. Senate. Reasoning with these voters won't wean them from a worldview steeped in prejudice and resentment. They must be beaten with votes.
Here’s hoping that I’m being too glum about that prospect this November. And that, should a wave materialize, the winners who ride it -- even if some of us won’t always agree with their politics — will be leaders of whom we can be proud.