Politics

Right-Sizing the Power of Republican Insurgents

The GOP must learn from the Alabama loss: Trump and Bannon are not indomitable.

Back to Earth.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republicans have lost a safe Senate seat in Alabama. Oh, Roy Moore is refusing to concede, but those better in touch with reality are aware that it’s over.

Alabama! This is like losing an election where the electorate consists of your mother. It is one of the most incredible own-goals in American electoral history. It is the political equivalent of watching the captain of the Titanic deliberately steer the ship into an iceberg, while many of the passengers wildly cheer.

Well, I may be going a bit overboard. Republican leadership, the nominal captains of this particular ship, did not want Moore to run even before he was accused of molesting a 14-year old girl. When he was accused, they wanted him to withdraw. But they were powerless to stop a mutiny from folks shouting “burn it all down.”

And hey, it burned. Welcome to Doug Jones, the first Democratic senator from the state of Alabama in a quarter century.

As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green reported, the man at the helm of this particular disaster is Steve Bannon, who remains a powerful thorn in the side of the Republican establishment despite being banished from the White House. His first mate was Sean Hannity, who was persuaded to keep Roy Moore’s candidacy alive when it was on life support. By the time November rolled around, Trump was offering full-throated support, and even the dread “beltway insiders” had restored his campaign funding.

And what can we learn from this? For Democrats, my advice is simple: Don’t get too excited. Yes, the schadenfreude is almost unbearably sweet. Yes, this will make it harder for Republicans to legislate next year. Yes, it will even make it easier for Democrats to retake the Senate in 2018. But the odds still favor Republicans, and Democrats are not going to hold onto Jones’ seat for very long. Moore was less popular in his state than a normal Republican before he was accused of being a child molester. Most of the Republican opponents in 2018 will not have such a political liability.

The second lesson is for the Trump-Moore faction of the Republican party: Your grievances with the party establishment may be justified, your decision to completely dismiss their political instincts is not. Next time they have concerns with nominating a guy who keeps getting kicked out of office because he thinks that he’s a law unto himself, maybe take them seriously.

Someone who doesn’t believe that the rules apply to him has a good chance of getting engulfed in a horrible scandal. There’s also a good chance that person will refuse to do the decent thing for the party when the scandal breaks.

The third lesson of Alabama is for the Republican party, both the establishment and the insurgents: Don’t overestimate the power of the insurgency.

As the Trump Machine overwhelmed all the party establishment’s defenses during the primaries, the insurgents began to believe that they were unstoppable, that they were The FutureTM. The establishment also started to believe it, developing a sort of learned helplessness in the face of the onslaught. They capitulated not because they wanted to, nor even necessarily out of craven political calculation, but because they believed that nothing could stop this terrifying invader.

They ignored the signs that the Deplorable Liberation Army was not as powerful as either its avatars or its victims believed. It was not able to oust Speaker Paul Ryan from his Wisconsin seat. It was not able to give Donald Trump an early policy win on repealing Obamacare. And it was not able to win a Senate race in one of the reddest states in the country.

Trump was almost incomprehensibly successful at beating back the establishment, and many people took this as a sign of a groundswell of support for a radically different vision of the Republican party. But the same evidence can be arranged much differently. What if Trump succeeded not because of MAGA magic, but because he was a celebrity candidate? Celebrity candidates don’t follow normal political rules. They bring in voters who wouldn’t normally vote, and those voters are voting for the image they’ve seen on their screen, not the ideology, or even the person.

Even then, these candidates tend to succeed in highly fragmented races where they can consolidate just enough star-struck voters to cross the finish line ahead of their too-numerous opponents. That’s how Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger won governorships, and also how Trump managed to win the Republican primary despite never commanding a majority of his party’s support. Then he barely eked out an electoral college victory against a charmless and scandal-plagued candidate who had never won a competitive election.

Trump’s voters may be invested in him, or at least, in hating his enemies. But he does not seem to have the ability to project political force much beyond his Twitter feed. And what power he does have probably rests in him, not the people who put him on the throne. The Breitbart wing of the party needs to reassess how much popular support they actually have, and the establishment wing should consider the possibility that their enemy may not be quite so indomitable. Once everyone knows where they stand, a more constructive partnership has a chance. Who knows, maybe they could win some elections together at some point.

The final lesson is for all Americans of every political persuasion. This election shows just how badly weakened our institutions are. Democrats are so feeble in many parts of the country that they just barely managed to edge out an accused child molester for this seat. And the Republican Party is so badly hollowed out that it was unable to save that seat from Roy Moore.

We are in an era that combines record-high partisanship and record-low levels of party discipline. Voters and legislators are reluctant to do anything, ever, that might please the other team -- but they won’t do much for their own teammates, either. And they’re certainly not doing much for the country.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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