Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) effectively called Roy Moore a child molester on Monday. McConnell said he believes Moore's female accusers, apparently including the one who told The Washington Post that Moore initiated sexual contact with her when she was 14 and he was 32. McConnell added that Moore should step aside.
Which means we'll now find out just how much power McConnell and the GOP establishment have to prevent someone he believes to be a child molester from joining his ranks. Or, looked at another way, we'll find out how much power they don't have.
The situation in Alabama is at once a pretty complex one and a pretty simple one. The state party has great latitude to withdraw Moore as its nominee, at which point the GOP would need to mount a write-in campaign for the seat. McConnell doesn't even have to persuade Moore to drop out; he just needs to persuade fellow leaders of his party to essentially flip a switch.
The reason McConnell and the GOP had been somewhat circumspect heading into Monday is probably 1) because they wanted to be convinced that they had a viable path to victory if they dispatched Moore, and 2) because they worried that coming down on Moore too quickly would only make getting rid of him more difficult, by causing his supporters to dig in.
The first part appears to have been satisfied — or, at the very least, McConnell seems to see no way forward other than trying to force Moore out — but the second part is still very much an open question.
As The Post's James Hohmann wrote last week, the initial responses to the Moore situation varied greatly between the GOP establishment in Washington and the GOP establishment in Alabama. While the former said Moore should step aside if the allegations were true, the latter was much more willing to stand up for Moore, even in some cases arguing that they'd still support Moore even if the allegations were true.
The latter group is the one McConnell will have to prevail upon. And although in any other era you might expect a Senate majority leader to get what he wants — probably with the assistance of that Republican inhabitant of the Oval Office — we are not in any other era. We're in the Trump era.
President Trump's response to this has been a hybrid of the Washington GOP's and the Alabama GOP's. He said Moore should step aside if the allegations are true, but he also cast significant doubt on them. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that “the president believes that we cannot allow a mere allegation — in this case, one from many years ago — to destroy a person's life.” And indeed, as I argued after those comments, it would be difficult for Trump to suddenly call on Moore to step aside, given that he has called the women who accused him of sexual harassment “liars.” How could he accept accusations made by Moore's accusers as fact when he suggests such accusers can in many cases be lying?
Joining Trump in casting doubt on those accusations, with varying degrees of logic, are Breitbart News and Fox News Channel. The latter, in particular, has sought to poke holes in the women's stories and suggest that The Post is out to get Moore.
That leaves the ball squarely in McConnell's court. If someone is going to get the Alabama GOP (or Moore) to acquiesce, it apparently will have to be him and his fellow Republican senators.
The problem from there is that the GOP base has turned against McConnell in droves, thanks in large part to Trump. A Fox News poll in September showed that 60 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of their Senate leader, up from 33 percent just a couple of months earlier. And in fact, nobody has employed an anti-McConnell strategy more than Moore; it's arguably how he won the GOP primary.
As McConnell and the GOP establishment have been so demonized, the GOP base has been instilled with a healthy persecution complex that makes it believe stories such as this are merely efforts to undermine its candidates. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, really, for this to happen to Moore, of all people, and for him to be pitted against McConnell, of all people.
Whatever the Alabama GOP truly thinks about Moore, it has to contend with that same base. Doing what McConnell is now publicly calling for will surely reinforce the belief that this is a widespread effort to take Moore down by the forces he's threatening.
Against that backdrop, it's really difficult to envy McConnell.