Every President has a moment which defines their tenure and cements their legacy. Regardless of their overall body of work, it is this intersection by which everyone remembers them, whether it be for good or for ill. While Harry Truman’s decision to fire General MacArthur was remembered by some as a near-treasonous move, he was best remembered for giving the order to drop the first atom bomb. Despite Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with China and rather adroit handling of the Vietnam War peace talks, he will be forever remembered for a few seconds of missing audio tapes from the Watergate scandal and the resignation which followed. In the case of George H.W. Bush, up until a few weeks ago, he was primarily remembered for his infamous “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge which he later was forced to renege on. Bill Clinton wasn’t remembered so much for Whitewater or even Monica Lewinsky, but instead for attempting to define the word “is” under deposition.
President Donald Trump’s defining moment may be approaching this week or next, and it may come in the form of his handling of the scandal involving Alabama Senatorial Candidate Roy Moore. The former state Supreme Court justice, who became a conservative and evangelical darling when he defied a court order to remove a Ten Commandments statue from the Alabama Supreme Court grounds, is now facing down a potential career-ending controversy with several women coming forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct and harassment, and that’s just the mild charges. Despite the allegations being decades old and Moore’s staunchest supporters remaining fully behind him, the fact remains this issue remains an albatross around his neck, one which appears to be tipping the balance of the race in favor of his opponents. The catch-22 for Trump is the fact that the Yellowhammer State, which had seen him as being an “everyman” sort of outsider and anti-bureaucrat who connected to that state’s anti-federalist “good ol’ boy” network with near instant compatibility, is now being told to keep his nose out of this situation. That’s right, the same man who Alabama voters once treated as the second coming of Bear Bryant is now telling him, in no uncertain terms, to shut up and get lost.
“The establishment did everything they could to destroy Trump, and we the people stood with him. It would be very disappointing to see Trump believe these lies and turn on a rock-solid conservative like Roy Moore.” – Alabama State Rep. Ed Henry (R) in a Politico article.
President Trump is in the classic political Catch-22. If he calls upon Moore to withdraw from the race to preserve the dignity of the GOP, he risks alienating his core voting bloc – namely, white middle-aged men and women who identify themselves as “tea party” voters and evangelical Christians. This group was absolutely instrumental to his securing the nomination in Cleveland in 2016, and even the most strident, “ride or die” Trump supporter will have a hard time squaring his choice to stick his nose in a local race for the purposes of political expediency. Then again, if he chooses to do nothing at all, he will unquestionably alienate the very independents who voted for him in 2016 for no other reason than they would have rather elected a glass of tap water from Flint, Michigan than let Hillary Rodham Clinton win. So now the biggest question of all – does Trump have any sort of strategy to save him? Many are looking at ousted advisor Steve Bannon to give Trump a means of a clean exit, or even words of wisdom from his current Chief of Staff, John Kelly. However, Trump may hold the greatest weapon to deflect from this matter with another Alabama issue.
Enter the curious case of former Governor Robert Bentley.
The disgraced ex-governor resigned from office because he not only faced impeachment by a General Assembly dominated by his own party, but also had details of an affair revealed during a criminal investigation into misappropriation of campaign funds. In fact, Bentley’s own reaction to the who situation was eerily similar to that of Moore, according to an April 2017 story on Al.com. It was just the latest in a series of gaffes and scandals to rock the Alabama Republican Party.
“He chided those who would expose ‘personal details of my past personal life,’ and said there was no reason to do it except ‘vengeance, jealousy, anger or personal benefit.’” – “Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigns amid sex scandal,” Al.com – April 2017.
Trump would be wise to dovetail former Gov. Bentley’s resignation together with the Moore scandal as part of a call for the entire Alabama GOP to do a thorough “soul search” and decide if winning elections is more important than holding the moral high ground. Trump could counter claims of meddling from politicos such as Henry and spin it as an example of “housecleaning” by the party brass to create a “purified” GOP which is more focused on the ideals and solutions the party represents, and call out Moore as a relic whose removing, combined with focusing on younger blood who are free of corruption and scandal, can blaze a new trail of moral superiority for the Alabama party and the national GOP as well.
Yes, you read that last paragraph correctly (my fingers spewed blood just typing out, by the way). Here’s the problem: Alabama’s GOP may actually be incapable of accomplishing such a feat. This is a state which has, on numerous occasions, demonstrated a near oppositional-defiant attitude towards anything sort of change which represents a cultural shift away from an ultra-romanticized antebellum worldview. It is also a politically mercurial state, to say the least. After all, not only does Alabama sport an abundance of anti-tax politicians from areas which have some of the highest municipal sales taxes in the nation (10% in Montgomery and Birmingham, in excess of 8% in many other municipalities, and that’s with an income tax), it is a state which disproportionately equates sports victories with politics. As one of my college classmates once said, the only thing worse than being liberal in Alabama is not being a football fan.
Alabama is staunchly traditional on many levels, most of all from a cultural standpoint. This is how Trump successfully navigated that minefield, by tapping into that “traditional values” vein and marketing himself as an “everyman,” that strong male who speaks his mind, “tells it like it is,” and doesn’t care who gets mad or is hurt in the process. Trump didn’t use the romantic concept of “Southern Honor;” to win Alabama, he merely had to tap into the “Don’t Tread on Me” vein to draw some political blood. By taking sides in the Roy Moore situation, the President is likely to get bit by either side of his party, and even both simultaneously. Moreover, a botched handling which demonstrates the President shows little regard for the law of the land will give his opponents near unlimited ammunition for the 2018 election at a moment where the national Republican Party appears to be the political equivalent of the Atlanta Falcons – all celebration, but can’t get the job done in the closing minutes.
Trump’s potentially best exit strategy may require him to demonstrate possession of a quality which he has, time and again, failed to possess – humility.
Whatever the outcome for Moore, the collateral damage for President Trump could be much deeper. This, indeed, could be his moment of truth, and that moment will mark him for the remainder of Presidency, whatever the outcome. We can only hope that the President proves that he can, indeed, be a statesman and not a uber-tweeting fool. If he can’t avoid being the latter, his time as President could be as tenuous and impotent as that of George H.W. Bush and James Earl Carter, sans the “statesman” status the aforementioned duo today enjoy.