When Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore, the pro-life cause took a bullet but dodged a grenade. There were no good options here, but Jones’s win was probably the best of the bad.
The political wound is real. Lost is a critical vote for defunding Planned Parenthood, dropping support to 49 among the slim GOP Senate majority of 51, since Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are opposed. But the Senate, which is using the budget reconciliation process to ferry around the filibuster, is effectively down to one major piece of legislation per fiscal year. Defunding Planned Parenthood was left out of the current tax overhaul and is unlikely to be included in the one remaining reconciliation bill possible before the 2018 elections. Stripping federal funds from the nation’s largest abortion chain could have happened in September, but once the larger Obamacare repeal effort had failed, not a finger was lifted to pass a more focused bill. In short, after seating Jones, the Senate will lack the votes to do what it was disinclined to do in the first place.
Collins and Murkowski have no track record of stopping President Trump’s judicial appointments, picks that are generally improving the federal bench. Yet, failing a death, the Senate’s confirmation power is unlikely to affect the Supreme Court’s aging defenders of Roe v. Wade before the 2018 midterms.
Regarding those elections, Democrats hope that the Jones win portends an election wave, but the Republican seawall is high. Democrats are defending 28 seats, ten of those in states Trump won. Other races, such as that opening up in the wake of Minnesota Senator Al Franken’s resignation, could also be competitive. Republicans are defending a mere eight seats, with only one of those, Dean Heller in Nevada, occurring in a state where Hillary Clinton prevailed.
With Moore’s loss, things get a bit harder for Republicans numerically, but they get easier in practice. Jones himself will not be up for re-election until 2020, at which time he will likely be the Democrats’ version of former Senator Scott Brown, the surprise Republican winner of a 2010 Massachusetts special election, who was unable to hold the seat under more normal conditions. If Jones were moderately pro-life, he might have waltzed to a victory that could have held over the long term, instead of edging a flawed candidate in a nail-biter. Such is the state of the Democrats that, even in Alabama, abortion is non-negotiable. For 2018, though, the Jones victory means that they need one win fewer than expected. Democrats will not, however, be able to hang “accused child molester Roy Moore” around the necks of the entire Republican Party. (We will see whether Trump is millstone enough.) Moore will not be making headlines on a daily basis, for real or perceived gaffes, or because of the ethics investigation that was promised by Senate leaders.
Had religious conservatives embraced Moore as they did Trump (despite Trump’s own problems with the opposite sex), Moore would have won. Ultimately, enough religious voters stayed home or wrote in protest votes to keep the Moore matter from doing additional damage. As an added bonus, Steve Bannon, a man just two steps removed from pro-abortion white nationalists like Richard Spencer, blew a tire in the Moore race. His attempt to grab the wheel of the GOP, an effort supported by the likes of Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins, may break down early, instead of taking much of the social conservative movement over a cliff.
We should not walk away from politics in disgust, though. An excellent First Things essay recently took on the idea that “politics is downstream of culture.” Maggie Gallagher and Frank Cannon rightly remind us that “politics is a part of culture” and can interact helpfully with other parts of culture that are less affirming of life, marriage, and religious liberty. They make a persuasive case that social conservatives should engage the political process with renewed vigor, rather than accept the Reagan-coalition role of being a “silent partner” while economic issues are trumpeted.
Moore at his best—and he did have his good moments over the years—offered the hope of a badly needed champion in the Senate. That hope was appealing enough that many religious conservatives continued to believe in Moore, even in the wake of his defiant, dodgy, and sometimes contradictory responses to multiple allegations of sexual impropriety. Others likely just saw supporting Moore as the politically pragmatic thing to do.
Yet, the insight “politics is a part of culture” cuts both ways. Reasonable policy positions may become tied to unreasonable people, and cultural forces may bypass the former because of the latter. Rather than engage the complexities of climate change, many on the right just say, “If Al Gore’s for it, I’m against it.” For many in the center or on the left, Roy Moore had similarly become the hypocritical face of social conservatism.
Moore’s closing ad was a beautiful and powerful defense of the unborn, at least until the point his name appeared. Given the general incompetence that seemed to characterize Moore’s campaign, my guess is that the spot was produced by an outside pro-life group. I understand the temptation to go all-in to stop someone like Jones, who could not even bring himself to support legal protections for an unborn child at eight months. But sometimes a single good vote is not worth tying your reputation to a drowning man.
Asking whether politics is upstream or downstream of culture does not quite capture it. Politics and culture are a braided stream. The flows mix and mingle, and we should be thankful that the muddy waters of Roy Moore will not permanently cloud the cause of life.
John Murdock is a professor at the Handong International Law School.