Alabama Democrat Doug Jones has a real shot to pull off an upset win over scandal-plagued Republican Judge Roy Moore. According to Politico, his strategy in a red state like Alabama is pretty straightforward: “Get Republican voters comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to pull the lever for this Democrat, if the alternative is scandal-wracked Roy Moore.”
The problem with this is getting Republicans comfortable—and no, this is not another lamentation about the very real and troubling rise of partisanship and tribalism that might prevent voters from crossing party lines.
Although Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, has an impressive résumé, the truth is that there is one big substantive reason why very few conservatives anywhere—specifically, the kind of voters who might be turned off to Roy Moore—could pull the lever for Jones: abortion.
To be sure, this is a complicated issue and there are (for many Americans) nuances. Some people believe life begins at conception, while some even support abortion under any circumstances. Somewhere in the middle, many mainstream Americans would settle for a ban on abortion after 20 weeks (five months). The majority of Americans support this ban as a sort of culture-war compromise. But when Chuck Todd asked Jones if he would “be in favor of legislation that said ban abortion after 20 weeks, or something like that?” Jones responded: “No, I’m not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose,” Jones said. “That’s just the position that I’ve had for many years, it’s the position I continue to have.”
It should be noted that Jones wasn’t under political duress from his left flank when he made this confession. He said this more than a month after winning the Democratic nomination in Alabama.
Jones very clearly stakes out an extreme position on what many see as a definitive life or death issue. What is more, it is a threshold issue for the very kinds of voters who might see Roy Moore’s behavior as unacceptable. This is not to say that Jones can’t win, but it is to say that he would be in a much better position to make Republicans “comfortable” if he weren’t so radical on this hot-button issue.
It’s easy to look scornfully at how evangelicals cling to these controversial Republican candidates, but the truth is that the other side isn’t doing its job of filling the niche that Republicans have abandoned. There is a demand for someone to be the opposite of Roy Moore and Donald Trump. But whether it’s doubling down on profanity, or pandering to their culture war base, Democrats have not fought to become a viable alternative for disenchanted Republicans who are looking for an alternative to an increasingly vulgar GOP.
It seems to me that there should be a party for the person who cares about defending the unborn—and protecting the refuge and the immigrant. There should be a party for the person who wants to say “Merry Christmas” at the Wal-Mart, but also believes that our culture has become too commercialized. Whether you’re for defending unborn children, underage waitresses, or refugees, these are all issues that people of faith and compassion might band together on in defense of the vulnerable against the powerful. But there is no one political party (or movement) that is consistent on these issues. In fact, politically speaking, they are almost mutually exclusive.
It wasn’t always this way. Writing about a time when many liberals were pro-life, Princeton Professor Robert George yearns for a time when liberals “saw no contradiction between their commitment to liberalism and their devotion to the pro-life cause. On the contrary, they understood their pro-life convictions to be part and parcel of what it meant to be a liberal. They were ‘for the little guy’ and the unborn child was ‘the littlest guy of all.’” (Before Roe v. Wade became the liberal litmus test, Democrats like Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and Al Gore could get away with being pro-life.)
Yes, Roy Moore is accused of some horrific things, and I suspect that a lot of conservatives will conclude they simply cannot vote for him. But the question remains: Can they, in good conscience, vote for Jones?
I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016, but there was one very fleeting moment when I considered pulling the lever for Hillary. In the wake of the Access Hollywood scandal, Hillary Clinton suddenly started to look like the more virtuous alternative. The GOP had become the party of vulgarians and authoritarians. Perhaps the Democrats would likewise reorder and become a tolerable home for those of us who found Donald Trump indefensible? It didn’t last long. Asked what she would “prioritize as the most important aspect of selecting a Supreme Court justice,” Clinton responded: “I want a Supreme Court that will stick with Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose…”
For a Democrat, this was a perfectly mainstream position to take. But it was also the end of my short-lived fantasy about switching parties.
If the Democratic Party wants to be viable again—especially in red states—it will need to make some Republicans feel comfortable. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Doug Jones, they are still a long way from doing that.