When Democrats don’t compete, Roy Moore is the result

It was difficult to fend off a fit of laughter reading Ben Jacobs’s wrap-up of the Alabama Republican primary for the U.S. Senate special election coming up this December:

Moore is as sui generis a product of the Yellowhammer State as white barbecue sauce and Bear Bryant.

Let’s start off with a couple of glaring mistakes here.

The Yellowhammer State might be Alabama’s official state nickname — as five seconds on Wikipedia will tell you — but no one really calls it that. The state’s license plates have had “Heart of Dixie” emblazoned across them since 1954. The signs welcoming you to the state’s borders used to say “Welcome to Alabama, The Beautiful,” but now read a simpler, more widely known message. Furthermore, the famed white barbecue sauce is mainly served at ‘que joints in the far north central part of the state, centered around Decatur and Huntsville. As it is, you would be hard-pressed to find white sauce at Dreamland or Archibald’s in Tuscaloosa, or Lannie’s in Selma.

(White sauce is also terrible, but I am digressing.)

And, yes, it is true that Alabama is a very conservative state. But the truth is that Moore is “sui generis” a product of a state with an ineffective and constantly self-destructing Democratic Party. That fact that this state is called “Alabama” means little, as folks in “Texas”, “Wisconsin”, and “the Dakotas” can tell you.

Politics is, at its most fundamental level, a competition. As Depression-era political scientist Harold D. Lasswell once stated, politics is about “who gets what, when and how”. Vital to that competition, of course, is the character of the debate that surrounds said distribution of resources.

In the last Alabama gubernatorial election, the Democrats nominated former U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith, who had been one of the most conservative Democrats in the House before he switched to the Republican Party late in 2009. His biggest reason for switching parties? The Affordable Care Act. After the state Democratic Party shockingly allowed Griffith back into the party, what did he base his campaign around? You guessed it, Medicaid expansion. It is hard to imagine voters lining up behind someone so craven in their pursuit of power that they would go from staunch opponent of the ACA to enthusiastic backer of one of its main precepts in a span of just four years. Guess what? Griffith would go on to lose by nearly 30 points to incumbent Gov. Robert J. Bentley.

In states across the South, the Democratic Party has been little more than the Republican Party with a smile; austerity, but with a sad emoji. Social conservatism, but quiet and low key. When the only difference between two candidates is that one candidate supports a policy that they once called, “bad for our country,” and the other continues to believe that thing that their opponent once claimed, it is hard to get people excited to come out and vote in such circumstances.

How could Roy Moore not rise to the top in circumstances like this? He’s like a lightning bolt straight out of the darkest pits of Hell, sent here to ensure that justice and equality remain far out of reach for the state’s most vulnerable citizens. In that way, he is very much in tune with Donald Trump, even if he did not get the president’s endorsement in the Republican primary. Moore’s opponents have always seized on his zaniness and far-right views, but have rarely offered an alternative aside from, “I’m not Roy Moore.” In that way, his opponents also mirror Trump’s opponent in the last presidential election.

Hey, how did that go for her?

Even now, the articles about this Senate race all urge the Democrats to do one thing: stay out of the race, and allow Democratic nominee Doug Jones to run as a candidate apart. Democrats have given up on the South for two generations, why not a third? Such a strategy cedes the political space to Republicans before the competition even begins, with one party not only providing financial and organizational assistance to their candidate, but also assistance in messaging and communication. The latter is perhaps the most important asset, because the terms of the debate will shape the terrain that future political battles are fought on; it is that which will shape the discussion of who gets what, when and how.

That discussion has drifted far to the right because it has been one-sided and to the right’s advantage. While Roy Moore may be remembered for his refusal to recognize the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, it should be noted that Moore’s decision was supported by some Democratic county probate judges in the state (in Alabama, the probate judge serves as the chair of the county commission, in addition to being the one who officially marries you in a particular county). In Tuscaloosa County, for example, W. Hardy McCollum refused to immediately begin issuing licenses both after U.S. District Judge Callie Granade struck down Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision later on that year.

Could this special election provide a needed debate that could moderate Alabama’s overwhelming conservatism? Possibly. But such a thing can only happen with a strong countervailing political corrective. The issue that would be the most likely to strike gold in this regard is Medicare-for-all.

According to a survey by the United Health Foundation, Alabama ranks amongst the worst states in health outcomes. That survey finds that Alabama ranks in the top 10 for maternal mortality, intimate partner violence, and homeless families, and ranks next to last in infant health outcomes. Perhaps this is no surprise once you discover that Alabama is ranked 42nd in health spending per capita.

Yet a perusal of Jones’s issue statements reveals nothing about Medicare-for-all, instead calling for health care that meets “basic standards that protect individuals”, whatever that happens to mean. A push by Jones for Medicare-for-all in Alabama would energize progressives in the state, bring out voters who have long since given up on change in Alabama politics, and expose a key weakness of Moore: that he’s a Christian who has a lot of time for the wealthiest citizens of his state, but no time for the least of these. Hell, you can even call Medicare-for-all “Matthew 25 Care” or something. By not positioning himself as standing for something and not just standing against Moore, Jones runs the risk of becoming another Jon Ossoff.

Ben Jacobs wants you to believe that Alabama is the only place where a Roy Moore is possible because of some far-right sentiment implanted in its citizens’ DNA. But the truth is that Alabamans have never owned Roy Moore so much as the Democratic Party does in its failure to put forth another vision for the state. Remember that Moore placed fourth in the state’s Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, and that he was only on the bench to be suspended in 2016 partially because no credible Democrat filed to run against him until about two months out of the 2014 election, by which time the state party had to engineer a proceeding to remove the right-winger that had originally filed for the seat. This cost the party and its replacement nominee, Bob Vance, precious time in a close race.

Moore might come from a long tradition of reactionary politicians from Alabama, but his ilk is by no means exclusive to Alabama or anywhere else in the South. He is as sui generis to here as Michelle Bachmann is to Minnesota, or Tim Murphy is to Pennsylvania.  The right can be beat, but they have to be challenged everywhere they stand or else they will continue to hold power.

Democrats must change the debate in the South. Otherwise, they will own naught but the failures to come.

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