So much of the pro-Trump commentariat loves to talk about the death of the Never-Trumper, that subset of Republicans who are is at once thoroughly irrelevant but also responsible for President Trump’s many legislative failures. I understand what writers like Jonah Goldberg and Erick Erickson mean when they say that NeverTrump was a thing in 2016, and now it’s done. It’s a shame, though, because a few of us in Alabama got to carry over some of that NeverTrump magic into the special election for the Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was appointed attorney general. And that election offers lessons for 2020 and beyond.
Back in 2016, I recall being disappointed that a supposedly principled constitutionalist like Sessions would support Trump as early as he did, but in retrospect I get it. Oddly enough, I find it was more credible to back Trump early than to cave like Ted Cruz. But Sessions’ loyalty to Trump set in motion a bizarre series of events in Alabama.
Governor Robert Bentley was being investigated by attorney general Luther Strange when Bentley appointed Strange to fill Sessions’ seat until the special election. The speculation around that, and whether Strange was compromised, might have helped elevate Judge Roy Moore to a primary victory over Strange. But I would argue that Moore’s win was instead a continuation of populist sentiment. He had spent more than 15 years brandishing his odd sort of evangelical populism, allowing him to build off a base of voters that simply did not exist for other candidates. The inertia of tribalism pushed reluctant Republican toward him. Yet his eventual loss suggested that GOP candidates could hit a point of no return; it was a touch of that old Never Trump sentiment that kept Roy Moore from winning.
Democrats at the state and national level were lucky to have Doug Jones available and willing to run. He was well-respected for his work convicting the perpetrators of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and he spent years supporting charitable causes in Alabama. He is a modern iteration of the old southern Democrat; diverse but not woke. Jones credibly campaigned as a churchgoer, a gun owner, and a hunter because all of these things are true. Voters could look at Jones as a safe option for two years before working to return the seat back to the GOP in 2020.
Jones’ election was a proud moment for a lot of Alabamians and it offered young Democrats a sense of hope and optimism for the future. Another friend—a native Alabamian now living out of state—told me how he broke down in tears when a news alert came across his phone while he stood stageside at a concert by the National.
If this feels like a silly, zen-like liberal-hug-yourself moment, sort of the reserve of those weepy millenials when Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, that’s a fair assessment. Still, it’s hard to overstate what a pariah Roy Moore was. Before the election he was mostly known for being the worst kind of theocrat – brash, cocksure, weak on both political philosophy and Christian theology, gleefully confusing the City of God with the City of Man, and proudly mixing it all together in an unhinged populist cocktail. But then there were the credible claims of his loathsome penchant for teenage girls in his swinging single days. If Robert Mitchum’s character in Night of the Hunter spent time with Ralph Wiggums and Huey Long, Moore is what you might cull from the residue.
So it was a gratifying moment for progressives and Democrats when Jones declared victory, while Republicans breathed a sigh of relief; no need to carry water for Moore and a chance to recalibrate heading into 2020. So far that’s proved true. While candidates are still weighing their options, the slate is promising. Congressman Bradley Byrne has already thrown his hat in the ring, while fellow Congressman Gary Palmer and state Senator Del Marsh are considering. The rumors of Moore’s entrance into the race are ominous, but muted thanks to the entrance of state auditor Jim Zeigler who is every bit as quirky as Moore, but lacks all of the personal baggage. But then there is Jones, who is running for his first full term and has the opportunity to really solidify himself as a force in the Senate .
Jones has been mostly quiet as a senator: harmless, anodyne, boring. In one sense, conservatives should be grateful for this. Jones could have joined in with the woke progressive coalition, lended support to everyone from Elizabeth Warren to AOC, and it would have made him a household name like Stacey Abrams. Yet Jones has stayed mum, voting as a reliable Democrat in most cases (he voted against the Kavanaugh and Rao nominations), yet occasionally crossing over to support GOP initiatives like Senator Ben Sasse’s bill to protect infants who survive abortions.
I suspect Jones has held these positions for two reasons. First, and most obvious, is that Republicans are going to attempt to portray Jones as an out of touch big-city liberal who is more in keeping with the values of Silicon Valley and Park Slope than the good people of Alabama. Political observers know that is the standard Republican stereotype of Democrats for two decades, and Jones has been wise in not giving his opponents any additional ammunition. The second reason that Jones has not used his substantial political capital to establish himself as a progressive leader is that he is simply uncomfortable with the intense progressive direction of his own party and caucus. He is a liberal, certainly, but when looking at the anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, anti-Israel firebrands to his left, he knows he’s not that.
The problem for Doug Jones is the problem for all moderate Democrats. It is one thing to favor a sturdy welfare state; it is another to contend that capitalism is a dead end. It is one thing to want to keep abortion safe, legal, and rare. It is quite another to support unlimited abortion at any point in a pregnancy, including the moments immediately after delivery. Concerns about climate change and racial inequality are one thing; the Green New Deal and neverending reparations are something else altogether. At a moment when our nation is desperate for calm leadership, radicalization has occurred on both sides of the aisle. Senators like Doug Jones, if they have any value at all to the republic, must push back against the radicalization of their own party. Jones recently hinted to an Alabama audience that his party would move back to the center. I hope he is correct, but that will mean naming names and speaking out against progressive policies and outlooks. It will mean incurring the wrath of AOC, Peter Beinart, and a thousand progressive Twitter trolls. I’m not holding my breath.
I long for Jones and other moderates within his party, to be simultaneously tougher and more moderate. If he emerges as a serious, competent Democrat, it means that his Republican opposition cannot paint him as a caricature. Crazy liberals make for crazy conservatives, but so do lazy, wimpy liberals. A strong Democratic party forces Republicans and conservatives to marshal their best candidates, policies, and messaging as they go before voters. Weak Democrats allow Republicans to take too much for granted. Indeed, such laziness on the part of Republicans helped Doug Jones get elected. If Republicans had known Jones would be a more formidable candidate, the sort that suburban voters could support if only temporarily, then perhaps they would have taken much greater care to ensure that a nut like Roy Moore never made it through the primary.
Maybe Democrats want to allow for a certain degree of policy and ideological diversity. Yet Democrats like Doug Jones, Joe Biden, and even Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi risk political annihilation if they allow their party to be defined by the wildly progressive trio of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. Even state level officials like Stacey Abrams have proved problematic, as her refusal to publicly concede her loss of the Georgia governorship continues to fuel progressive discontent. If these young voices are not the future of the Democratic Party, then its leaders should say as much. At the very least, centrist leaders should push hard to carve out some political space for themselves. That they have failed to do so up to this point is a discredit to themselves and their party.
I want strong, credible liberal candidates because I want strong, credible conservative candidates. Part of conservatism’s problem is that it has grown bloated, lazy, complacent. Internecine battles among conservatives are nothing new, but our collective laziness has led to anger and resentment, as witnessed by the debasement of First Things and the Claremont Review of Books into organs of paranoia and derangement. Everyone should know better, but Democrats who have placed no restraints upon their most ideological goals deserve part of the blame. Both sides have forgotten that each political action brings forth a reaction, and the more extreme the first move, the more extreme is the one that follows it.
Centrist Democrats and liberals are critical to the health of our democracy. It is now time for Democrats like Doug Jones and other honest liberals to muster up their best arguments and call forth the best of what remains of the conservative movement and the Republican Party in order that America can have a policy debate that is both honest and realistic. This is a moment of clarity for whatever remains of the Democratic Party that is supportive of both the free market and robust American leadership. It is time for those politicians and policy makers to make a case for a strong social safety net while disavowing socialism. It is time for them to argue for internationalism while maintaining moral clarity in Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea. For heaven’s sake, clearly denounce anti-Semitism and quit relitigating the Cold War in such a way that it calls into question Democrats’ opposition to Jew-hatred and communism.
Admittedly I want Democrats to move back to the center so that Republicans will do the same, and I want the conservative voice to win the day. Conservatives cannot win if they are forever tilting at windmills, searching for shapes in the clouds, and finding socialism everywhere they see Medicaid. The more extreme the left becomes, the more unhinged will be the right, and vice versa. If conservatives are to lose, we could do far worse than to lose to Joe Biden and Doug Jones. I would hope that Democrats would rather lose to Marco Rubio and Mike Gallagher than to, say, Ted Cruz and Mark Meadows. The outcry against Trump’s emergency declaration has seen conservatives beg Republican leaders to reject Trumpism and move toward the center. We should likewise implore liberals to do the same. Our country will be all the better for it.