The complicated case of Roy Moore's candidacy

One of the most famous (albeit mildly sick) quotes in politics was popularized in the early 1980s by Louisiana's legendary scoundrel and four-time governor, Edwin Edwards. During one of his many political comebacks, Edwards boasted: "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." He wasn't, and Edwards, a Democrat, indeed won. These days, you have to wonder if either of those things would even matter.

In 2017, the whole world is watching a different, bizarre political spectacle in the American South, as the Republican Party just can't quit Roy Moore, its Senate candidate in a critical special election next month. This even as allegations pile up that as a thirtysomething prosecutor, Moore trolled for young and sometimes underage teen girls at the mall, the YMCA, and even dance recitals, and did some horrible things the times he caught up to them.

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Roy Moore faces an election in Ala. next month.

It's too late for Republicans to yank Moore off the Dec. 12 ballot, so any action to undercut Moore - promoting a write-in candidate as an alternative, for example - would surely mean victory for Democrat Doug Jones. And the loss of one Senate vote for Republicans - who currently hold a slim and cantankerous 52-48 majority - would dim any hopes for the party's agenda of tax cuts throwing dollars at big corporations and billionaires and pennies (if that) at the rest of us. So the new GOP mantra is, "Vote for the alleged teen molester, it's important."

Alabana's governor, Kay Ivey, said that while she believes the multiple women making lurid allegations against Moore, she plans to vote for him anyway. She told Alabama newspapers that "we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices, other appointments the Senate has to confirm and make major decisions. So that's what I plan to do, vote for Republican nominee Roy Moore."

President Trump then spiked that football on Tuesday night, offering a full-throated endorsement of Moore because "we don't need a liberal person in there, a Democrat," while claiming that Jones, a former U.S. attorney who famously prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, is "soft on crime." As for Moore, Trump said: "He denies it, and by the way, he totally denies it."

The "hot take" on this is to be outraged, because it is outrageous. A government with no morality is intolerable, yet the current state of play is a complicated one.

For one thing, as much as I hate this expression, this is arguably a case where, to some degree, "both sides do it." In modern U.S. times, the notion that a politician's private morality is secondary if he's doing the right thing with his public morality - i.e., his political actions on behalf of the issues that matter to me - originated with those liberal critics of male supremacy who were willing to give Bill Clinton a pass for the way he treated women.

Here's the complicated nut of it all. Despite the annoying similarities between both parties in areas like their never-ending pasta bowl of addiction to corporate money, there are also differences between the Democrats and Republicans that truly matter to their most enthusiastic partisans. One side believes in science - especially the science of climate change and the need to take urgent action - while the other often denigrates the scientific community. One party fights to end or at least restrict abortion at every turn, while the other supports expansive reproductive rights. You get the point. A lot of voters say, why should I wave the white flag of surrender on these issues that matter to me and often affect me personally - just to make an example of one guy who happens to be a total creep.

I spoke with Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and communication at Stanford University and one of the nation's top experts on the psychology of political behavior. He said national surveys have shown that while voters' affection for their own party has remained constant, their level of loathing for the opposing party has skyrocketed in the last 15 years or so. "If you really hate the other side, then any excuse to bring them down seems appealing," Krosnick said. When it comes to something like sexual misconduct allegations that carry some ambiguity, voters often fall back on what psychologists call "motivated cognition" - finding a reason to believe the political figures they want to believe.

The reality is that American politics is always going to call for some situational ethics in the voting booth. But I'm naive enough to think there's a line somewhere, and a thirtysomething man hitting on teens at the Gadsden Mall falls well below that.

I also like to think that if my ultra-liberal "dream date" of a candidate - anti-death penalty, pro-$15 minimum wage and universal health care - turned out to have "a Roy Moore problem," I'd still find one way or another to reject him at the ballot box. But then, I used to think that about most other people, too. I don't know what to think about morality and politics in the Trump Era anymore, other than that we're still feeling our way to the absolute rock bottom.

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