Breaking news shouldn’t break late in the evening. There will be more to say in the morning, but something was up. Some wag at the jazz station out of Long Beach was playing Stars Fell on Alabama – a sappy love song from the thirties that somehow became a jazz standard. Louis Armstrong recorded a version of it. So did Cannonball Adderley with John Coltrane, and so did Art Tatum, and Erroll Garner, and Stan Getz, and even Sonny Stitt. Billie Holiday had her searing version of that song – but Ricky Nelson and Jimmy Buffett recorded it too. That song has legs, and good chord changes, but it’s still sentimental fluff – “We lived our drama, we kissed in a field of white, and stars fell on Alabama last night.”
Yeah, yeah – love is wonderful. Love can transform everything. Shooting stars flash across the sky. Stars fall gently to earth. That can happen even in the most unlikely of places, even in Alabama, of all places. Whatever – and that old song hummed along on the radio – the Stan Getz version – but that was a mystery. Why that song? Why now?
It was political commentary. Late in the evening, back east, there was drama in Alabama, in its field of white, or Old South whiteness, and stars did fall from the sky:
In a stunning setback for the Republican Party, Democrat Doug Jones was elected Alabama’s next senator Tuesday, flipping a deeply red state after a campaign that showcased the increasing power of sexual misconduct allegations and the limits of President Trump’s political influence.
Jones’s victory in a part of the Deep South that has not elected a Democratic senator since 1992 was a dramatic repudiation of his opponent, Roy Moore, a former state judge twice removed from office. Moore responded to allegations that he made sexual advances on teenagers when he was in his 30s by describing his campaign as a “spiritual battle” against a conspiracy of Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington.
There was no conspiracy of Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington. Moore was just a jerk, and he’s still a jerk:
After the race was called by the Associated Press, Moore declined to concede defeat, saying he believed that the margin of victory could narrow enough to trigger an automatic recount. “Realize that when the vote is this close it’s not over,” he said. “We also know that God is always in control.”
The Alabama Republican Party said it would not support Moore’s push for a recount.
The Alabama Republican Party was in control, not God, and they’d been embarrassed by this man far too much already, but this does change everything:
Jones’s victory portended the head winds facing Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections, coming just a month after a historic Republican wipeout in the battleground state of Virginia. With Jones in office, Democrats will have a credible, if still difficult, path to retake control of the Senate two years into Trump’s term.
The result could also become a factor in upcoming legislative battles, as Republicans will have one less vote in the narrowly divided Senate in 2018.
But there is a fix for that. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who never liked Moore in the first place – said the Republicans will pass some sort of tax bill before the end of the year and then, after that’s out of the way, swear in Doug Jones. That will limit the damage, but that doesn’t limit the damage to Donald Trump and his provocative best buddy:
Trump won Alabama with 62 percent of the vote in 2016. He attempted to lead a late rally for Moore in the closing weeks of the election, recording a robocall, hosting a rally in Florida near the state line and repeatedly warning Republicans to avoid electing a Democrat.
The president’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, all but adopted Moore as the public face of his insurgent effort to topple the congressional leadership of the Republican Party. Bannon appeared at both of Moore’s rallies in the final week, and he deployed the full force of his Breitbart News operation to support the campaign.
It did not work. In the end, Jones won about 50 percent of the vote compared with about 49 percent for Moore, with Jones benefiting from strong African American turnout and a white share of the vote about twice as large as Barack Obama won in 2008.
It seems that some stars fell in Alabama, not on Alabama:
Exit polls showed a steep drop in support for Trump since his victory in 2016. Just 48 percent of voters approved of the president’s job performance, higher than the national average but well below the levels of 2016, when Trump adopted Alabama as one of his favorite locations for large rallies. It was the second time in two months that the state flouted Trump’s endorsement. Republican primary voters also rejected Sen. Luther Strange, the president’s choice in the September runoff.
Trump’s star is falling, even in Alabama, and this didn’t help:
Democrats were aided by senior congressional Republicans who dropped their endorsements of Moore after the allegations of misconduct surfaced, including hardline conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). McConnell had promised to open an ethics investigation if Moore won.
The Republican National Committee also pulled out of the race after the allegations surfaced, with Trump’s initial blessing, but then reengaged in the final week of the campaign at the president’s direction.
The Republican National Committee hitched their wagon to the wrong star, as they say, and the Washington Post’s resident anti-Trump conservative, Jennifer Rubin, sees how this will play out:
Trump, having been rebuffed twice by Alabama voters (after backing Luther Strange, who lost in the Republican primary, and then Moore), emerges a weakened, somewhat pathetic character. In a state he won with over 60 percent of the vote last year, his approval in exit polling was 48 percent, with disapproval at 47 percent. His party rebuked him on Obamacare repeal and now failed to carry his candidate over the finish line – in Alabama, of all places. With political impotence may come a Trumpian outburst – or string of outbursts – and a greater willingness among Republicans in the House and Senate to defy him. It’s every man and women for himself or herself in 2018.
In short, expect Trump to lash out, and expect almost all Republicans to ignore him, or worse, to finally call him a fool, and Rubin sees this too:
The defeat of Moore will intensify focus on Trump and his accusers as well as miscreants in Congress. With the resignations of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), the tide had clearly turned in favor of credible accusers. Given the swift and fierce reaction in response to Trump’s demeaning tweet virtually calling Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) a prostitute, watch for emboldened Democrats to demand an investigation of Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct. That may well be a key issue in 2018. The president may now have more to fear from female senators than from Robert S. Mueller III.
Expect a formal investigation of Trump’s sexual nastiness, and expect this too:
The GOP is spared the ordeal of seating Moore in the Senate, but at the price of narrowing their margin to 51-to-49. This makes passage of the tax bill that much dicier and puts Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), already under fire for support of the first version, in a precarious position. Does she swallow the phony spin and the bogus analyses or stand firm in support of the Obamacare exchanges and fiscal prudence? Expect the onslaught against Collins to intensify.
And expect this:
This may be the beginning of the end of Stephen K. Bannon’s self-perpetuated myth that he’s a brilliant strategist. He managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama. As a result, his efforts to primary mainstream GOP incumbents may fall flat and suffer from a shortage of funding. The GOP establishment lives to fight another day.
And expect this:
We pray the defeat of Moore initiates some soul-searching in the GOP, a determination to hold to moral and intellectual standards and to reject, if not Trump, then Trumpism. If pure, undistilled Trumpism is a dud in a deep-red state, perhaps Republicans will conclude it is a failed political philosophy for the country at large.
As in that old song, wondrous things can happen, even in the white fields of Alabama, although, as Dan Balz points out, not wondrous things for Republicans:
The stunning victory by Democrat Doug Jones was a devastating blow to a party wracked by divisions and intraparty rivalries and a humiliating defeat for President Trump.
For some Republicans, the fact that the controversial and flawed Roy Moore will not be their new senator from Alabama came with some measure of relief. But the consequences of that outcome will reverberate over the coming months in one legislative battle after another. An already razor-thin margin in the Senate becomes even more tenuous for the party in power.
Beyond that, the tumultuous election served to expose further the fissures, fault lines and rivalries that have only widened in the 13 months since Trump captured the White House. The election provided the capstone to a year of tumult inside the GOP, and at a time when the party controls the levers of power in Washington and states across the country, the Alabama campaign was one more reminder that this is a party facing a major identity crisis and no easy answers for how to resolve it.
The party was either going to be the party of Trump and Bannon and candidates like Roy Moore, or it was going to be the party of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and candidates like Luther Strange, but it couldn’t be both. Half the party hates McConnell and Ryan and mocks them mercilessly, Bannon eggs them on, and sometimes Trump egged them on. The other half of the party hates Trump and Bannon – or will now. With those two nothing gets done, and Balz puts that this way:
Many Republicans will privately be pleased to see Bannon and even Trump get their comeuppance. But that doesn’t resolve the split within the party over the direction it should take. As long as Trump is president, this is the division and the reality that Republicans will live with – an uneasy coalition at best.
And the Democrats look on, and pick up another Senate seat, which Balz sees as the real problem:
It’s always easy to overstate the importance of a single election and no doubt that’s the case even for Alabama. But this is one contest that seemed to bring together much of what is in the forefront of the political debates, from the popularity and influence of the president to the fractured Republican Party to the issue of sexual harassment. For Republicans, it was a bad night, no matter how it was measured. The question is where they go now.
No one knows where they go next, and now no one may care. Something else is going on, and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat sees this:
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.
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 resentment. 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.
The New York Times’ Frank Bruni is fine with that:
For more than a year now, virtually all Democrats, many independents and even a significant share of Republicans have looked at President Donald Trump’s conduct and governing priorities and felt that they were suddenly in a foreign land. I count myself among this stunned and despairing group.
We saw decency in retreat. We saw common sense in decline. We saw a clique of unabashed plutocrats, Trump foremost among them, brazenly treating the federal government as a branding opportunity or a trough at which they could gorge. We saw a potent strain of authoritarianism jousting with the rule of law.
And we saw many Americans, including most Republican leaders, either endorsing or quietly putting up with this, to a point where we wondered if some corner had been turned forever.
That’s still an open question. But Alabamians provided a partial answer on Tuesday, showing that there are limits to what voters will tolerate, in terms of the lies they’ll believe, the vices they’ll ignore and the distance they’ll stray from civilized norms.
Moore, an accused child molester who sugarcoated slavery and seemed intent on some sort of extreme Christian theocracy, was simply too far.
And it was about time:
Democrats began this year in a state of panic and confusion, their party diminished almost unimaginably over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. Republicans hold both chambers of Congress. They control many more state governments than Democrats do. And though they gave their presidential nomination to a ludicrous and offensive candidate – an amoral showman – they won the White House nonetheless.
But now, as Trump completes a crazily turbulent first year in office, Democrats are on a streak – or certainly feel that way. Last month, the party’s candidate handily won the governor’s race in Virginia, where heavy Democratic turnout translated into huge gains for Democrats in the state legislature. Alabama adds to that…
And stars did fall on Alabama:
Apart from their tortured relationship with Trump, Republican leaders caught a break here. While their Senate majority now shrinks to one vote, they won’t have to welcome a senator who’s another stain on a party that can’t bear any more of them.
But Democrats are the bigger victors. Scratch that: Americans are. If Alabama isn’t beyond redemption, then the country isn’t, either. To use a word that Moore would appreciate: Hallelujah.
Use that word, or just sing that old song – “We lived our drama, we kissed in a field of white, and stars fell on Alabama last night.”
That’ll do, but there will be more to say in the morning. This news just broke. Now what?