In one of the strange rhymes that history favors, nearly eight years after Barack Obama’s Democrats managed the extraordinary feat of losing a Senate race in Massachusetts, Donald Trump’s Republicans have matched the feat by losing a Senate seat in Alabama. Roy Moore and Martha Coakley don’t really have a lot in common personally, but their respective defeats have one essential similarity. They are both stark repudiations of a first-term president, foreshadowing a larger repudiation soon to come.
What was repudiated in Massachusetts in early 2010 was a specific policy course: the Obama White House’s pursuit of a sweeping and complex health care bill in the teeth of an enormous recession, which unsettled voters who wanted hope and change only so long as the latter didn’t affect their health insurance premiums. The fact that Coakley was a terrible candidate made it easier for Scott Brown to torpedo her, but the backlash against Obamacare, the feeling that a liberal president had turned too soon from seeking growth to seeking redistribution, was an essential element in her defeat.
There is an unpopular Republican tax bill now to echo the unpopular Democratic health care bill eight years ago, but policy is a much smaller part of what was repudiated Tuesday night in Alabama. It was not so much a rejection of the Trump agenda as it was a rejection of the whole Trumpian mode of politics, which since our president’s election has consisted of a trebling down on the most unattractive features of his campaign style, a fervent commitment to “triggering the libs” shorn of any populist substance, and a cocksure assumption that any Republicans who aren’t in it for the liberal-triggering care enough about judges and abortion or their tax cuts or the soaring stock market to swallow hard and go along.
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Roy Moore, in this sense, was Trump’s Trump – the man who took this mode of politics to 11 and beyond. The president has harassment accusations; the judge had mall-trawling accusations. Trump is a race-baiter; Moore was a stock character from a message movie about Southern bigotry. Trump’s populism mixed reasonable grievances in together with some stupid ones; Moore’s populism was the purest ressentiment. And like Trump but much, much more so, the Moore campaign relied on the assumption that Republicans who didn’t care for who he was and what he represented simply had nowhere else to go.
So while Moore’s defeat is, yes, specific to him, specific to the statutory rape accusations and all the rest of his problems as a candidate, it’s also a pretty clear foretaste of what you get when you distill white identity politics to a nasty essence and then try to build a coalition around it. You get massive Democratic turnout, black turnout in particular, slumping Republican turnout, and a whole lot of write-in votes from people who should be your supporters. You get Democrats winning elections in the most unlikely places. And you get, quite probably, a Democratic majority in the House and perhaps even the Senate.
Is that future inevitable? In theory, no. When Scott Brown won in Massachusetts, it was possible to imagine the Obama White House learning something from the defeat, course-correcting on health care, passing a more modest bill, dialing back their ambitions, making a public show of being chastened. They did not do so, in the end, but they certainly considered it, with Rahm Emanuel in particular championing that course – one that might, might, have saved some Democratic House and Senate seats in the Republican wave of 2010.
So just as the Obama people considered course correcting after Coakley’s loss, you could theoretically imagine the Trump people course correcting after Moore’s – inducing the president to abandon his online feuds and insults, weaving a little more racial sensitivity into his rhetoric and actions, even persuading the GOP leadership to rewrite its tax bill to make it a little less howlingly unpopular. Moreover such a pivot would be easier politically, in a sense, with Roy Moore defeated rather than narrowly elected, since he won’t be in the Senate and thus in every Democratic 2018 ad, tainting the Trump White House by association every day.
But who are we kidding? The Obama White House considered a course correction because, for all its flaws, it was a rational and functional place, capable of doing cost-benefit analyses and changing strategies as the political situation altered. And team Obama decided to stay the course for what were debatable but also rational reasons – the theory that a sweeping health care bill would be simply worth the political pain and midterm election losses required to get it passed.
No such rationality exists in the Trump White House, no such cost-benefit analyses are conducted, no such vision for what the president wants as his legacy exists. You can’t change course without a map; you can’t change your plan when you don’t have one to begin with. Maybe we’ll get a new and “presidential” Trump for a few days or even a couple of weeks after this debacle; maybe there will be talk of reaching out beyond the Hannity demographic and trying to act like the president of all Americans for a while. But none of it should be taken seriously. Trump can control himself for a short time here and there, but tomorrow is always another day. And Twitter is always waiting – filled with liberals asking for a triggering, all the haters and losers waiting to get owned.
No, there will be no course correction – only the Trump we’ve seen so far, the Trump who would rather have the GOP fall in ruins around him than give up on his feuds and insults and absurd behavior, the Trump who made Sen. Doug Jones our strange reality, and the Trump who is also responsible for the larger wave that’s building, building, for next fall.