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Matthew Stokes: Dear, Doug Jones

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Matthew Stokes

I did not vote for Doug Jones for Senate in 2017, but I helped him win by voting for a third party candidate.  

Roy Moore was a deeply flawed candidate even before the accusations of aggressively pursuing romantic relationships with teenage girls.  For many conservatives like me, the accusations only confirmed the wisdom of giving up the seat for two years.  While I remain skeptical of the current president and increasingly frustrated by his leadership of the Republican Party,  I’m willing to return my vote to the GOP for Senate in 2020. That will be determined to a large extent on who Republicans nominate, and boy, does history show we can get it wrong. But it also will be determined by the actions of one man, the current occupant of that Senate seat: Doug Jones.

So, I have a little advice for Senator Jones and his campaign: moderate. Doing so will help your own reelection prospects, while also forcing the Republican Party to likewise restrain its more populist impulses.

I have already expressed criticism of Republican messaging against Jones. A lot of people voted for Jones, and the Republicans should be in the business of appealing to those voters, not writing them off as out of a step with Alabama values.  Jones is well-liked by plenty of voters, and I do not believe he is easily written off as a coastal liberal elitist. Nevertheless, the numbers are what they are, and I imagine that leading Senate hopefuls like Del Marsh and Bradley Byrne would easily unseat Jones and send him back to Birmingham.  If Jones wants to keep his position, or at least have a fighting chance, he should look to moderate toward the middle, and I propose he do so in at least three ways.

First, he should recognize the inconsistencies in his own speech, as well as that of many within his party, on accusations of sexual impropriety.  According to a recent piece in Yellowhammer News, Jones remains ambivalent about Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, noting that accusations of sexual assault against Fairfax pail in comparison to those against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.   That’s fair enough – many times voters don’t know their Lieutenant Governor well enough to miss him when he’s come, to borrow a line from Johnny Cash. Nevertheless, this is a story that has caught national attention, and Jones would do well to use the same standards against a member of his own party as he did the nominee of a Republican president. And doing so can only serve to help him appear not beholden to the Democratic Party. 

Second, Jones should be willing to part company with the more progressive wing of his own party.  Democratic presidential hopefuls have tripped over themselves in recent days to praise the so-called Green New Deal while also vowing to move away from private health insurance.  California Senator Kamala Harris walked back that proposal, though New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was more than happy to make the same case. The Green New Deal touted by freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a laundry list of untenable progressive policies that no serious politician thinks to be workable, but again, many within Jones’ party have rushed to promote this agenda.  If Jones believes these policies to be worth pursuing, he should say so. If he doesn’t share that sentiment, and my guess is that he probably doesn’t, why not make it clear? He could also earn endless platitudes by rebuking the anti-Semitism of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. He is almost certain to go unopposed in the Democratic primary, and should have nothing to fear from laying out his actual positions.

Lastly, Jones should be willing to moderate on abortion.  Abortion has been less of a sticking point in national politics in recent years, but recent legislative actions, approved in New York and rejected in Virginia, have brought the debate back to our attention.  Comments about infants born alive – “the infant would be kept comfortable” – by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam reignited a national conversation about late term abortion. Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse proposed Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act in the US Senate, only to have Democratic Senator Patty Murray block the bill on behalf of her party.  Jones has remained mostly silent on the current matter. This is regrettable. Sasse’s bill does not seek to restrict abortion, but only to mandate that any infant born alive during a botched abortion receives medical care.  (National Review’s Alexandria DeSanctis provides a nice rundown here.)

Toward the end of the 2017 Senate campaign, Jones showed at best inconsistency and at worst doublespeak on the issue. He told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd he was “a firm believer” in a woman’s right to choose and opposed a Republican-proposed bill limiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Then, upon receiving criticism, Jones quickly attempted to clarify that he would not change Alabama’s law restricting abortion after 22 weeks. The issue had the potential to derail his campaign entirely, but just a week later The Washington Post reported accusations of four women claiming Moore pursued them as teenagers when he was in his 30s. I doubt Jones will be as fortunate with his opponent this time around. 

If Jones is the moderate voice that he claims to be, he should be willing to state his views clearly on an issue like this, crossing the aisle if necessary.  Democrats often accuse Republicans of being in service to the NRA on gun rights matters, but it is hard to think Jones’ position is anything other than fear of being on the wrong side of Planned Parenthood and its massive power base.

If Jones were willing to walk back to the middle on just a few key issues, it would force his Republican challengers to talk more about actual issues rather than run against him as Democratic caricature.  As long as Jones gives silent assent to the progressive wing of his party, his opponents will be justified in labelling him as such.  More importantly, it will allow them to play prevent defense during their own campaigns, while avoiding the tougher policy questions that legislators ought to defend.  If Jones were to moderate and push back against his own party, it would force his opponents in the GOP to abandon Trumpian excesses for fear of looking ridiculous, and perhaps we could have a valuable to debate about how to address the issues that really matter to our state and nation.  If he fails to do this, then, as Rick Bragg wrote, it’s “all over but the shoutin’.”

Within certain circles in Birmingham and Montgomery, it’s not uncommon to hear whispers of “Doug Jones doesn’t really believe that” when it comes to a progressive take on a particular issue.  I’d like to believe that – a lot of people probably would – but it is time for Jones to make it plain.  More than ever, American politics needs both a center-left and a center-right.  Jones should look to fill that void. He may well lose in 2020, but if he pulls his colleagues in both parties back to the center, he will have, not for the first time, done his state and nation a great service.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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