The final months of the 2016 presidential election forced Republicans to make a choice. Would they support their nominee, Donald Trump, after more than a dozen women accused him of sexual assault, or would they abandon him in the name of decency, even if it cost them the presidency?
We know what happened. Republicans condemned Trump and distanced themselves, but never quite rejected him. They quietly stuck with his campaign, shepherding Trump to victory.
Now, almost a year to the day after Trump’s election, Republicans face a similar choice. On Thursday, the Washington Post broke news that Roy Moore, the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in the upcoming Alabama special election, allegedly “initiated sexual contact” with a 14-year-old girl nearly 40 years ago while working as a 32-year-old prosecutor. After meeting her outside a local courtroom, Leigh Corfman says, he later drove her home and kissed her. She says that in another meeting, Moore groped her and placed her hand on his genitals.
She wasn’t alone. The Post reported that Moore approached and made advances toward three more young women, one of whom was 14 when they met and 16 when he asked her out. Another was 17, and the third was 18. In their interviews with the Post, two of the women described going on dates with the much older man. (The youngest of the three said her mother forbade her from going on a date with Moore.)
Immediately, state and national Republicans were asked to weigh on the allegations. In Alabama, the response was absolute indifference.
“It was 40 years ago,” said Alabama Marion County GOP chairman David Hall to Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale. “I really don’t see the relevance of it. He was 32. She was supposedly 14. She’s not saying that anything happened other than they kissed.” Other state party officials were similarly dismissive, telling Dale they would support Moore, even if the claims in the Post story were true.
National Republicans weren’t as quick to defend their fellow partisan. Arizona Sen. John McCain called the allegations “deeply disturbing and disqualifying” and said Moore “should immediately step aside and allow the people of Alabama to elect a candidate they can be proud of.” The National Republican Senatorial Campaign severed its ties to Moore, and Republican luminaries like Mitt Romney issued swift condemnations of the Alabama candidate. “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections. I believe Leigh Corfman,” said Romney on Twitter. “Her account is too serious to ignore. Moore is unfit for office and should step aside."
These unequivocal condemnations were the minority. More common were those from figures like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. “If these allegations are true, Roy Moore should step aside for all the obvious reasons. Very disturbing allegations,” said McConnell. “If these allegations are found to be true, Roy Moore must drop out of the Alabama special Senate election,” said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner. “If there is any truth to that, he ought to step aside, of course,” said Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. “These allegations are disqualifying if true. Anyone who would do this to a child has no place in public office, let alone the United States Senate,” Ryan said.
Conservative activists have taken a similar line. “The allegations reported by the media against Roy Moore are beyond disturbing and, if true, would disqualify him or anyone else engaged in such behavior from holding a position of public trust,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Center.
If true. On the surface, this looks like a condemnation and a call for Moore to leave the race. But it isn’t. These Republicans are shocked by the allegations, but they aren’t willing to make a judgment about their veracity or make a choice about their support for Moore. Indeed, if true defers the issue to Moore himself. Either he makes it true by acknowledging and affirming the allegations, or he doesn’t, in which case those Republicans won’t have to act. If true renders the question inert. If true is moral cowardice.
Republicans face the same choice they did last year, when Trump was accused of sexual assault. And with few exceptions, they have deferred making a choice, which is a choice in and of itself. By hedging their statements, and by not directly calling for Moore to leave the race, they are signaling their willingness to accept Moore into the Senate, if he wins. His predatory behavior, his bigotry, his contempt for the rule of law—all of those are secondary to the fact that he will give them an additional vote. This is where the Republican Party and the conservative movement stand. If partisanship demands that they support an abuser and a predator, then that’s exactly what they’ll do.