Roy Moore's Senate run is the symptom of a bigger problem for Republicans (and Democrats)

Moore’s indecorous Senate candidacy highlights a conflict as old as republicanism itself. And America will pay the price in the form of political dysfunction and radicalization.
Image: Roy Moore Announces His Plans For 2020 Senate Race
Roy Moore gives the Pledge of Allegiance before announcing his plans to run for U.S. Senate in 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama, on June 20, 2019.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images
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By Noah Rothman, associate editor of COMMENTARY magazine

Say what you will about Roy Moore; the guy has nerve.

It’s a rare figure that can be twice disgraced from the state Supreme Court bench, face multiple allegations of unwanted sexual contact with minors, become the first Alabama Republican in a quarter century to lose a race for U.S. Senate to a Democrat and still come back for more. But back he is.

The former chief justice announced last week that he would once again seek the Republican Party’s nomination to the U.S. Senate, and his chances cannot be summarily dismissed. In 2017, Moore could count on a base of passionate supporters among Alabama’s evangelical community. With no credible alternative candidate to syphon off that support, Moore could again win enough votes to force a runoff election. Moore’s chance of winning the primary is inversely proportional to the strength of the candidates who oppose him.

Moore’s chance of winning the primary is inversely proportional to the strength of the candidates who oppose him.

Notice what’s missing from this equation: The Republican Party. The GOP never had much use for Roy Moore, and that’s doubly true today. The party is by no means ambivalent toward this threat to a coveted seat in the upper chamber of Congress. It’s just apparently powerless to do much of anything to mitigate it. And in the end, if Moore wins the nomination, the party’s elders will again fall in line behind Alabama’s Republican primary electorate. Contrary to the populist refrain, it’s the voters, not the reviled establishmentarian elites, who are in the driver’s seat.

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Long before the first accusations involving sexual misconduct with teenage girls upended the 2017 special election, the GOP did what it could to undermine Moore’s candidacy. President Donald Trump endorsed former Sen. Luther Strange, and a PAC supportive of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent millions defending Strange, who had been temporarily appointed when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Moore has a penchant for courting controversy, but his understanding of the liberties afforded by the Constitution leaves a lot to be desired as well. The institutional Republican Party’s concern was less that Moore might lose the race for Senate, and more that he could win — straddling the GOP’s shoulders like an albatross for the next six years.

The Republican Party is wasting no time making the same case against Moore that it made in 2017. The president has tried to convince voters that Moore can’t win. McConnell announced that he would be “opposing Roy Moore vigorously.” The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund asserted in a statement that nominating Moore amounts to “gift wrapping this Senate seat for Chuck Schumer.”

America’s two dominant political parties are often blamed for encouraging the kind of polarization that contributes to congressional dysfunction and the increasing authority the presidency and the courts have over American political life. But a mounting body of academic research suggests that the opposite is the case: American political disorder is the unhappy byproduct of the declining relevance of the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The history of political parties reveals that they are the critical mediating institutions that make the American Constitution function well,” Heritage Foundation Fellow Joseph Postell writes. Healthy parties “translate majority will into public policy” and are less susceptible to hijacking by demagogic personalities. They create incentives for members to compromise and bargain in the pursuit of incremental but tangible political reforms. By contrast, weak parties yield reduced incentives for officeholders to demonstrate their efficacy to voters by highlighting their accomplishments. And without accomplishments, voters are left to gauge the relative strength of individual candidates based on intangibles such as ideological rigidity, bluster and pique.

The origins of the crisis of institutional weakness arguably date to 1968, a year of political chaos, domestic bloodshed and urban unrest that culminated in the sitting president abdicating his incumbency and the Democratic Party nominating his vice president as successor, contravening the will of the party’s primary voters. The “smoke-filled rooms” in which party elders moderated the impulses of the demos have had a bad odor about them ever since, and both parties have labored to make the process for nominating federal candidates ever more democratic.

In the decades that followed, both parties have been under increasing pressure to sacrifice their prerogatives in the name of transparency and accountability. The parties have been relieved of their capacity to fundraise, which has created a vacuum that advocacy organizations and political action committees have filled. They’ve surrendered their authority to vet candidates and coordinate messaging to political entertainers on the internet, radio and cable news. It used to be that presidents would summon columnists and commentators to the Oval Office to enlist support for their agendas. Today, it’s the other way around.

This trend toward the democratization of politics at the expense of institutional strength continues even today. In August 2018, the Democratic Party moved to strip superdelegates — party officials, members of Congress, governors and state legislators and other institutional heavyweights — of much of their authority over the presidential nominating process. The party’s stated effort is to repair frayed relations between the institution and its voters amid a general perception that the Democratic Party put its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton in the presumption that she would be a stronger candidate in 2016 than Bernie Sanders.

A political party’s responsibility to maintain the fealty and trust of its voters must be balanced against its obligations to maximize its potential to secure political power at the ballot box.

But a political party’s responsibility to maintain the fealty and trust of its voters must be balanced against its obligations to maximize its potential to secure political power at the ballot box. When these obligations conflict, the party’s institutional leaders are far more likely to choose efficacy in government over ideological homogeneity in the wilderness. Ideologues in the grassroots respond to a very different set of incentives.

Whether it is an assembly of electors, a deliberative legislative body or a political party, a political institution will occasionally encounter tension between the will of its constituents and the good working order of the institution itself. Moore’s indecorous candidacy is a symptom of a conflict as old as republicanism itself. But responsible institutional stewards do their constituents a disservice by subordinating their wisdom to the caprice of the majority. If the parties continue to atrophy, America will pay the price in the form of increasing political dysfunction and radicalization. And both party’s Roy Moores will be running the show.