Let’s be honest: Doug Jones is likely to be a three-year senator.
I don’t want to rain on the winner’s parade. The former U.S. attorney, lifted from hopeless to victory by the accumulating flaws of his opponent, is the first Democrat in a generation to win a Senate seat in Alabama. That’s an achievement. Jones showed enough discipline to avoid a gaffe that might have saved his self-defeating opponent, Roy Moore, a cosplay cowboy and scofflaw who says life was better when we had slavery and women couldn’t vote.
Jones recognized the political maxim: When your opponent is digging his own grave, don’t grab the shovel.
But his victory is not about him. On one level, it’s about his bizarre opponent. Even before we learned about the mall police who allegedly kept an eye out for him approaching teenage girls by the Orange Julius, there was something badly off about Moore. He had weird obsessions and a messianic complex. He put the creep in creepy.
The entire vibe was on display as Moore capped his disastrous campaign by riding to the polling place on Tuesday on a horse. That might be a good idea for a candidate who can ride a horse. Ronald Reagan might have won some votes by riding up to the polls, after a career in Hollywood.
But Moore looked like Billy Crystal’s incompetent understudy for “City Slickers.” He looked like the rodeo clown who pretends to know how to ride a horse. What gets into a man’s mind to think: I would look strong riding a horse, so I will — even though I don’t know how to ride one?
And the Jones victory is about a rising tide of Americans who won’t swallow the bilge President Donald Trump is pushing. Make no mistake: If Trump and his would-be Pygmalion, Steve Bannon, can’t sell their mix of cultural resentment and paranoia in Alabama, they will be hard-pressed to sell it anywhere. I say this with love: Folks in Alabama do loyalty and clan as well as anyone in America. That’s a virtue — up to a point. They would go over the falls in a barrel with George Wallace.
But they hopped onto the shore when Moore asked them to strap in, and that ought to give pause to the polarizer in chief.
Doug Jones’s victory is not a big deal because of Doug Jones. It’s a big deal because Alabama is a one-party state. Pretty much always has been. For generations going back to Andrew Jackson, it was “yellow dog Democrat” country — meaning Alabamians would vote for a yellow dog over a Republican. The realignment wrought by the civil rights era and the culture wars has reversed the picture.
For a Democrat to win here says nothing about the Democrat and everything about the Republican. You can go too far. There’s a point where decent people step off the crazy train. Bannon — the angry populist from Goldman Sachs, Hollywood and Washington — thought he could blow past that point with a head of steam from the Demagogue Express.
Now he’s off the rails.
Even one-party states have their limits. There was a Louisiana politician in the politically incorrect days of 1983, a man equal parts corrupt and quotable named Edwin Edwards, who said the only way he could lose an election “is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” Horrible. Pushed to the wall, Alabama Republicans responded with Moore’s Law: Getting caught with live girls is fatal, too.
Congressional leaders should feel nervous. After responding with appropriate disgust to the first reports of Moore’s mall-walking, they waffled and quailed in the face of Trump’s supreme amorality. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who seems not to realize he is fighting for his life against Bannon and only aggressive moves will win — backed away from his initial condemnation of Moore. They have been placating the right wing, and the danger to Republican majorities appears to be bubbling in the other direction.
And Trump should be nervous. A scandal playbook dating back to the 1990s has lost its magic. When faced with his “Access Hollywood” tape, Trump went to school on Bill Clinton. And when Moore’s teen-stalking became public, he followed in step. Moore’s bald denial (“I do not know Miss Corfman”) was a perfect echo of Clinton’s (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”). The Clintonistas blamed “a vast right-wing conspiracy” while the Mooreists demonized “a liberal establishment” and “deep-state RINOs.”
Deny and attack didn’t work in Alabama. And if it doesn’t work there, it might not work anywhere. Jones may not get much done in three years as a senator, but his victory Tuesday can accomplish something important — if we let it. We’ve been asking ourselves: Where do we hit bottom and start back up?
This can be it.
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in the Midwest.
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