Brown University

Partisanship Trumps Morality: Roy Moore and the GOP Tax Bill by Zach Witkin @ Brown University

In the early hours of December 2nd, Senate Republicans passed a haphazardly written tax bill which, in its current form, perpetuates the rise of socioeconomic inequality and disproportionately affects democratic states. The bill gives tax breaks to the rich and to corporations, while eliminating many deductions that help lower incomes brackets and people in blue states. While the merits and demerits of the tax bill are important for understanding the current state of politics and our economy, we must consider how holding a vote on a less-than-ideal tax bill, in conjunction with the republicans’ support of Roy Moore the Republican Alabama senate candidate, perpetuates and increases partisanship and polarization. The passage of the senate GOP tax bill and the renewal of GOP support for Roy Moore exemplifies the normative shift that partisanship and partisan control of government, namely policy making control by the republicans, now outweighs responsibility to uphold ethical and moral lawmaking. Because of the divergence of opinion in the GOP about Moore, this controversy also has the potential to reshape the dynamics within the Republican party.

After multiple iterations of health care legislation written to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act failed, the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress are starved for a “legislative win.” What the undiscerning eye might not catch is the link between this vote and the controversial special election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Because much of the Republicans’ success hinges upon maintaining the votes to pass their tax overhaul bill, Republican lawmakers felt they needed to vote on a tax bill before the special election, when they were assured enough votes to pass, as a Roy Moore victory was in doubt.

After the allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced, Trump, the RNC and McConnell were in lockstep saying they will allow Alabamans decide the race for themselves, and that they cannot withdraw support of Moore based on “mere” allegations of sexual misconduct.[1] Others in the party explicitly condemned his actions and called on him to step out of the race. However, once the tax bill passed, Trump and the RNC reestablished their support for Moore. Trump even tweeted, “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama.”[2] Other Republicans either maintained that he should step down, or neither condemned nor endorsed him. But why the sudden change of heart by the RNC and Trump? Once the tax bill moves out of committee for a final vote in both chambers of congress, Republicans will once again need enough votes to maintain a majority in order to pass the bill. Supporting Moore is a wholly partisan one.

By supporting Roy Moore, being either complicit, as McConnell and other Republicans have been, or actively supporting him, as Trump and the RNC have, Republicans effectively say that a Democrat in the Senate is worse than having an individual who committed heinous acts against girls and young women. With Trump’s history of “alleged” sexual misconduct, and now Moore’s, their supporters side with men accused of sexual misconduct for partisan and political gains, perpetuating a notion that partisan membership now outweighs any moral obligation of holding candidates and elected officials to the same standards by which we hold citizens.

Republicans’ decision to support Moore agrees with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s, assessment that the informal norms of “partisan self-restraint and fair play” have “eroded in recent decades.”[3] They cite the increased use of the filibuster to pass legislation along partisan lines, and the Republicans’ refusal to consider Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. The Alabama Senate race and the support for Roy Moore, put in context with passing the GOP tax bill, is another example of how Republican’s self-restraint has corroded – this time to the point of supporting someone with an abhorrent history of sexual impropriety as a means to preserve political power and further their partisan legislative agenda.

Moving beyond the immediate implications of supporting Moore, this controversy has the potential to fractionalize the Republican party even further. To illustrate this, I draw on Sunstein’s scholarship on group polarization. He says, “When people find themselves in groups of like-minded types, they are especially likely to move to extremes.”[4] Following Sunstein’s thinking, those who broke away from Trump and the RNC to oppose Moore’s candidacy may rally together to become more stanchly resistant to the people, policies and rhetoric that the Trump/Moore camp endorses. The “Anti-Trump/Moore” faction of Republicans will use more restraint and follow their moral obligations as leaders and legislators to support policy decisions that prioritize ethics, morality and substantiated policy over loyalty to their party identity. Meanwhile, those who support their co-partisans “at all costs,” will continue to fall in line with Trump’s branch of the party which perpetuates compromises of morals and sound governance for political gains.

This controversy has the potential to be a turning point for the Republican party. Republicans can remain fractious, which compromises their power and stability as a solitary party, as Lust and Waldner assert in their point about party system fractionalization.[5] Or they can come together as a party to stand against sexual assault while maintaining a sense of unity through common policy-driven interests and values. One way or another, people who subjugate, oppress, assault and abuse women, and others with less institutional power, must not be the one’s representing the United States.

[1] Greg Sargent, “Opinion | Despite allegations, Trump isn’t calling on Roy Moore to step aside. Here’s why.,” The Washington Post, November 10, 2017, accessed December 10, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2017/11/10/despite-sexual-charges-trump-isnt-calling-on-roy-moore-to-step-aside-heres-why/?utm_term=.ad704f3477a4.

[2] @realDonaldTrump – 12/04/2017

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/opinion/sunday/is-donald-trump-a-threat-to-democracy.html

[4] Cass R. Sunstein, Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide (Oxford University Press, 2009), Chpt. 1.

[5] Lust, Ellen & David Waldner. 2015. Unwelcome Change: Understanding ,Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Washington, DC: USAID.

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