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GOP can grow its coalition in 2020 by winning on ideas

Alabama Daily News Columnist Matthew Stokes

I grew up in a household where we really enjoyed Christmas music.  The music of the season was a constant refrain in our house from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.  Today my own family lives in pretty much the same manner. We dabble a little bit before Thanksgiving but once it arrives, we enjoy Christmas music – classical, jazz, choral, and pop – all the way through early January.  One of my pet peeves regarding Christmas music, and the whole commercial holiday business, is not that the decorations and the music are in full swing by Veteran’s Day. No, the frustrating thing is that it all disappears sometime around lunch on December 26.  Start early, if you must, but for heaven’s sake, don’t be so quick to put it all away.

For better or, most likely, for worse, political campaigns operate in a similar fashion. The ink is scarcely dry on most ballots from 2018 – and in some Florida counties, that’s probably true! – and we’ve already caught wind of numerous potential candidates for offices ranging from the White House to dogcatcher of Gordo.  When Doug Jones managed to win a vacant Senate seat in 2017, observers knew that his time in office might be brief. True enough, there are plenty of rumors around the state about potential GOP challengers to the seat. Where specific candidates have not emerged, political operatives have begun to make the case that Jones does not truly represent the values and interests of the people of Alabama.  There is truth in this assertion, though it is a truth that should be handled with care.

As an Alabama Democrat, Jones is certainly an outlier.  Had practically any other candidate besides Roy Moore emerged from the GOP runoff in 2017, the seat would be safe in Republican hands for the foreseeable future.  Instead, Republicans and conservatives were stuck with Moore, his ego, and all of his underaged baggage. For moderate voters, the choice was all too easy: elevate Jones as a caretaker, prevent Moore from soiling the state and the GOP any further, and fight it out again in 2020.  

That was my own position at the time. I did not vote for either candidate; I could not in good conscience elevate Moore to the office of Senator, knowing that the party and state would be forced to carry water for every silly and stupid thing he would inevitably say and do. At the same time, I was unable to affirm Jones and push the Senate further into the hands of party that I did not trust, so I opted for a third party candidate.  Yet I think it would be a mistake to assume that Jones does not properly represent Alabama values.

The truth is that a majority of voters in December 2017 selected the man to fill a Senate seat. Though the options were slim, he nevertheless won. Should his opponents push this line of attack, they run the risk of rejecting not just Jones, but his voters and supporters.  This is counterproductive and out of step with the Reaganite legacy. It is also out of step with the brutal reality that even Southern suburban voters are increasingly voting like their counterparts north of the Mason-Dixon line. Of course there are lines a candidate should not cross, and Jones’ vote on Brett Kavanaugh might be one, but parties and politicians should always seek to expand their coalitions by making the case that their positions are preferable, and that those of their opponents are not.  This is pejorative towards the opposition, but only by default. Conservatives have always believed in firm principles. If we truly believe those ideas are good, we should make the positive case for them and argue, not against our opposition, but against their ideas.

That brings up an important point.  There is a very real danger in conflating values with policies.  I know full well that our views on everything from school choice to tax rates often reflect our deeply held values about the role of community, family, freedom, and how they all intertwine with the state. That is a good thing, and we should work together to wrestle with these questions more often.

Indeed, a lot of voters who get upset over policies have never really wrestled with the question of values in the first place.  Still, there is tremendous room to maneuver with our policies without betraying our core values. If we constantly equate the two, we only intensify our politics by presenting every fight over policy as a moral fight over values.  Sometimes that is the case, perhaps in matters like immigration or abortion.

I’ve written before that I felt the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation was a loser for all of us, but I understand the outrage on both sides. There were and remain real questions of values around that matter.  Those questions may prove to be Doug Jones undoing, but do we really want every race to be that way? We have a chance to undo this, if we would only take up the task.

When I cast my vote for Senate in 2020, I am all but certain it will not be for Doug Jones.  Divided government can be a good thing and there may even be times when it is prudent to cross the aisle and vote for the other party.  When it comes to the Senate, however, it would take a candidate as toxic as Roy Moore to cause me to once again fail to support the conservative candidate.  

All the same, I want to see the GOP coalition grow beyond its current populist base. Nationally and here at home, conservative candidates must recall the Reagan-Kemp tactic of making the positive case for our own values and policies in order to engage urban and suburban voters.   Dismissing a Senator, and his voters, as antithetical to Alabama is not the way to do it.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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