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Matthew Stokes: Some questions for GOP Senate hopefuls

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

With around a year before Alabama’s Republican primary, talk of contenders for the state’s junior senate seat is heating up.  Del Marsh and Will Ainsworth are our; Bradley Byrne and Tommy Tubberville are in.

A recent poll showed a surprising level of support for Roy Moore. However, that poll had its flaws. It’s hard to imagine the under-50 crowd is longing for a Moore candidacy, and I remain optimistic that voters and party officials won’t let that happen again.  Still, it would be good to get some clarity on where candidates stand. To that end, I’d like to pose a couple of questions for all current and future candidates to the Senate.

The first question concerns America’s role in the world, and we can start with foreign policy.  The long-held Republican position supported a robust foreign policy that saw American leadership as essential to keeping the peace of the post-World War II order.  This outlook worked hard to maintain strong relations with allies in Europe and Asia, and spent considerable time recognizing threats from actors both large (Russia, China, Iran) and small (ISIS and other terrorist outfits).  The last few years have seen Republicans shift in various ways. There has always been an isolationist streak among some Republicans, and it has returned to prominence. The question for a potential senator is where does America fit into this world?  What should be our posture toward our allies? Are Russia and China threats? Is NATO a valuable alliance to be preserved, or a burden to be tolerated until something better can be arranged? We are barely a fifth of the way into our new century, and there are many global challenges to confront. Prospective senators should be ready to answer these in some detail.

America’s role in the world is not simply about foreign policy and military posture. There remains the question of trade. For almost 30 years we have pursued a bipartisan agenda of free and open trade, and while there have been specific instances of American industry suffering, the net benefit for our nation and our allies has been overwhelmingly positive.  Do Republicans intend to stay the course, or will we embark on a more antagonistic attitude towards our allies? Past leaders like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and George W. H. Bush worked to explain the value of free trade to Americans. Do future Republican leaders intend to make the case for free trade in the future?  Republicans are pushing back hard against socialism, but defending the market will involve defending free trade, as well.

Future senators will face serious problems on the domestic front.  Trustees recently released reports stressing that both Social Security and Medicare will face severe insolvency in the next two decades, with Medicare’s trust running out by as early as 2026.   The word crisis is often overused, but here it is appropriate. The time for blame is over; no good can come from arguing that this is the fault of past administrations or opposing parties, however accurate that may be.  Voters do not like to hear this; even surveys of Tea Party voters revealed a tendency against privatization or reduced benefits. We will need serious leadership to navigate this problem, both in terms of public policy but also the rhetoric to convince voters the way forward.

I have yet to mention President Trump, and with good reason.  The previous questions are policy questions that can be detached from the current occupant of the White House; those problems will persist regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election.  Indeed, they are questions that any candidate for national office, regardless of party, will need to race. Yet as the GOP has become the party of Trump, it is only reasonable to ask candidates about the leader of their party.

As one senator among a hundred, I would ask any candidate; “who are you apart from Donald Trump?”  If we woke up tomorrow and thorough some cosmos accident, someone else were President, who would you be?   It is normal to support your party’s leader, so that’s not the issue. What is unique now is the extent to which Trump’s priorities and personality have become the GOP.  There is always a risk there – Trump might lose reelection, he could resign unexpectedly, Thanos might snap his fingers. It’s important that Senators know their role independent of the White House’s occupant.

I’ve said little about the Mueller Report, but can every GOP politician put his or head on the pillow at night trusting that there are no crimes or ethical questions that remain unresolved?  Are you certain that there are no more ex-girlfriends out there with salacious tales? Then there is the President’s overall demeanor. I often wonder what the breaking point will be for Republican politicians.  Is there a tweet too far? Some comment at a rally or in an interview? Maybe senators believe they can ride this part of the storm, but are you certain? Is there a “break in case of emergency” press release to use if President Trump crosses some unforeseen line?

Whoever wins a Senate seat in 2020 is guaranteed two years in office with another president, and it is likely to be a Democrat.  What criticism could a Republican make of any future Democratic President’s personal or professional conduct that would not be hypocritical in light of the last few years?  If a future Democratic Attorney General were to conduct himself like Bob Barr over the last six weeks, including Sunday’s report that he may refuse to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, what could be said?  If a future president decides to bypass Congress and act via executive order, what can Republicans say? Kamala Harris has already said she’ll act on gun control if Congress won’t. Are candidates for Senate willing to reassert the constitutional authority held by the legislative branch? Or has the robust defense of Donald Trump emptied our leaders of the moral capital needed to sustain them in the future?

At the end of the day, this isn’t really about Trump.  I understand the transactional nature of politics, so I don’t begrudge a certain degree of support for the President. But Donald Trump will be gone before a senator’s first term expires.  When Alabamians go to the poll next November, we are likely to set someone up for several terms in the Senate. It is pretty clear where most Republicans stand today. We need to know where these candidates stand on principle so that we might know where they will stand not just for the next six years, but for ten or twenty beyond that.

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

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