Judging Roy Moore

A GOP victory in Alabama may be more costly than a defeat.

 
 

Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at a rally in Dora, Ala., Nov. 30.
Former Alabama Chief Justice and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at a rally in Dora, Ala., Nov. 30. PHOTO: BRYNN ANDERSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
 

Republicans have an unusual political problem in Alabama: Their candidate may win.

We’re talking about Roy Moore, who is neck-and-neck in the polls against Democratic candidate and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. By now there cannot be a soul in America unaware of allegations that, as a 30-something assistant district attorney, Mr. Moore had inappropriate sexual contact with underage girls, including one as young as 14.

The former judge has categorically denied it all, saying at a campaign event last week that the accusations are “malicious” and “I do not know any of these women.” In response, one of the women, who says she dated him as a 17-year-old, has produced a greeting card she says he sent her, as well as a page in her scrapbook where she listed “ Roy S. Moore” just above her mom and dad as her guest at her high school commencement. 

We find her evidence and the testimony of the other women persuasive, even if we are generally skeptical about trial by newspaper, especially four decades after events are said to have occurred. But this is an election, not a trial, and voters have to make decisions in these imperfect circumstances.

But as Alabamans decide, they should consider that there are strong moral and practical reasons to reject Mr. Moore. For one thing, Republicans have never embraced the idea—promoted by Bill Clinton’s defenders for more than two decades—that bad behavior in a politician can be excused if it’s “just about sex.” Now is no time to change a sound position that politics is about more than policy.

A Moore victory would keep the GOP Senate majority at 52, which seems to explain the unfortunate decision this week by President Trump and the Republican National Committee to endorse Mr. Moore. But victory would come at considerable cost. The Senate would be obliged to seat him, and the allegations would surely be referred immediately to the Ethics Committee, which is already vetting the sexual misconduct of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken.

Depending on what the committee finds, there could be a vote to censure or expel Mr. Moore. The many Republican Senators who have already called for him to step aside as a candidate would face a difficult political choice in an election year. If Mr. Moore is a Senator, the media will hang him around the neck of every Republican candidate as Democrats try to drive turnout among women and dispirit GOP voters.

A Moore defeat would also go far to discredit Steve Bannon, the former White House aide who wants to mount a primary challenge to every Senate Republican other than Ted Cruz in 2018. Mr. Bannon backed Mr. Moore in the primary, and he knows that a defeat in Alabama, of all conservative places, could persuade Republican voters elsewhere that he cares more about blowing up the GOP than he does about passing a conservative agenda.

We understand the fix Alabamans are in, especially with a Democratic candidate who better fits California than what may be the country’s most conservative state. This is an example of how the country could benefit if Democrats still had an anti-abortion or moderate wing. But no election is forever, and the winner next week will have to run again in 2020 for a full six-year term. Alabama Republicans would get another chance at Mr. Jones, but if they elect Mr. Moore they might be stuck with him for a very long time.

Appeared in the December 6, 2017, print edition.

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