The Republican Party, home of moral clarity and ideological certainty, finds itself deeply conflicted. How do you respond when your candidate for a precious Senate seat is credibly charged with skeeviness so extreme that it might well have been criminal? Do you circle the wagons or head for the hills? How do you weigh your vital political interests against the values you claim to hold?
This is the dilemma the GOP faces as the story of Roy Moore and his alleged predilection for teenage girls captures the political world. The reaction of those in Moore's party has covered a spectrum defined by where the different forces in the party and the conservative media draw their support. If you want to figure out where people stand on Moore, all you have to do is look at where they sit.
When The Washington Post published its deeply reported story on Thursday, it sent the party into a panic. Four women who don't know each other all describe how Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was a prosecutor in his 30s; the youngest, with whom Moore had sexual contact, was 14 years old. Their accounts are backed up by friends and family who knew about it at the time, and more is sure to come. According to a former co-worker of Moore's who worked with him around the time of the events in question, "It was common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls, everyone we knew thought it was weird. ... We wondered why someone his age would hang out at high school football games and the mall."
Moore denied the story vehemently, but did allow that he "dated a lot of young ladies" when he was younger. Asked directly by Sean Hannity whether he had dated teenagers, he said, "Not generally, no." So there you have it.
If Moore were running for a House seat somewhere, cutting him loose wouldn't have posed much of a problem for Republicans. But a Senate seat is much more valuable, and this one should be as safe as they come. If Democrat Doug Jones were to take it, the GOP margin in the Senate would be down to 51-49, awfully precarious territory. It would make Democrats taking control of the chamber in 2018 a significantly stronger possibility—and if that happens, in many ways the Trump presidency will be effectively over, and along with it the Republican dream of a neverending stream of conservative legislation.
So it isn't surprising that Republicans are torn. But even as the White House can't seem to make up its mind how to react, the most enthusiastic defenders of Moore come in those quarters where devotion to Trump is the strongest. Or more specifically, those people most reliant on Trump's base are the ones rallying to Moore's flag.
None may be more important than Fox News, which knows that its ratings and income are dependent on pleasing an audience that continues to revere the president, and who have for years been schooled in a tribalistic worldview in which Republicans are always right and Democrats have only the worst intentions and motivations. So Fox has been defending Moore and even trying to dig up dirt on his accusers, in support of Moore's assertion that this is all a conspiracy against him.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been sounding this call as well. "The Bezos Amazon Washington Post that dropped that dime on Donald Trump is the same Bezos Amazon Washington Post that dropped the dime this afternoon on Judge Roy Moore," Bannon said soon afterward, referencing the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged of his ability to sexually assault women with impunity. "Now is that a coincidence?" Well no, not really, insofar as the Post is one of America's most important news outlets and has made a major investment in investigative reporting (disclosure: I write for the Post). But that doesn't mean both stories weren't true. Along with Fox, Breitbart (which Bannon is once again running) has already published almost too many stories defending Moore to count, and it too is investigating his accusers in an attempt to discredit them. And Alabama Republican officials seem to be sticking by him.
So who is calling for Moore to drop out? For the most part it's either "establishment" Republicans for whom skepticism about the Trump phenomenon is already built into their brand, or those who have an acute need to appeal to moderates. The National Review published an editorial entitled "Roy Moore Should Drop Out," a position supported by a spate of articles by its writers. The Senate fundraising arm of the RNC pulled its support. Senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake called for him to leave the race, as did some representing swing states or districts like Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia.
That leaves a big group in the middle, whose position is that if the stories are true then Moore should pull out, a stance that has been taken by President Trump, Vice President Pence, Mitch McConnell, and many others. That leaves them ample wiggle room: they can condemn the acts, and if Moore still manages to win, they'll be able to say, "Nothing was ever proven" and play nice with him, in the hopes he doesn't cause too much trouble.
Not that they ever liked him; let's not forget that even before this story broke, Moore was all but guaranteed to be a headache for the Senate leadership and the party in general. He was kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing to follow lawful court orders and has made clear that he puts his own interpretation of scripture above earthly law. He has said that homosexuality should be illegal, and has written that it is "a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it." He has said Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, and believes that "There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country" in Illinois and Indiana.
In short, Roy Moore is a radical fundamentalist, an unapologetic bigot, and an all-around nutbar. Republicans weren't eager before for him to become a symbol of the contemporary GOP, and now that we can add pedophilia to his list of endearing characteristics, the thought fills them with panic.
The varied responses to the Moore scandal remind us that the Republican Party is not the ideological and strategic monolith it once seemed to be. As much as Trump has made the party his own, different people on the right have different interests, and that will keep creating division as they pursue them. If their party wasn't so full of hucksters, knaves, and the occasional outright monster, it might be a manageable problem. But as it is, their internal problems are only getting worse.
This article has been updated.