Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Support for Horrible Politicians (Herschel Walker and Liz Truss edition, with cameos by Donald Trump and Bill Clinton)

by Michael C. Dorf

Why are most Georgia Republicans and the national Republican Party's leaders and donors still supporting Herschel Walker for Senate, even after learning that he is a shameless hypocrite who condemns absentee fathers and abortion even as he is an absentee father who encouraged and paid for an abortion for a woman whom he impregnated (and who had the abortion and, despite further abortion advocacy from Walker, later birthed one of those children whom Walker abandoned)? I suppose that for some, perhaps many, of the conspiracy-theory-minded rank-and-file members, it's because they disbelieve all negative news stories about their team.

But many other Republicans acknowledge that Walker is a loathsome hypocrite. Still they regard his very serious personal failings as much less important than control of the Senate, where he will surely be a reliable vote for the party's agenda. Given their goals, support for Walker--or for Satan himself were he to run as a Republican--is instrumentally rational.

That said, I'm probably giving most Georgia Republican voters too much credit. Just as Donald Trump's loathsomeness is a feature, not a bug, for his supporters, so I have little doubt that a great many of Georgia Republicans have persuaded themselves that Walker's abandonment of his children and hypocrisy are indications of his "toughness" or some other self-serving nonsense. After all, Walker won the GOP primary by an overwhelming margin.

Walker's victory in the primary, like Trump's primary victory in 2016, does raise a question about horrible people who aspire to or hold public office: If it would be possible to replace them with other officials who would advance the same political goals as effectively but who aren't personally loathsome, why stick with them?

Part of the answer is peculiar to primary elections, where base candidates tend to do better in light of who turns out (at least on the Republican side). By the time the general election rolls around, Republicans who either didn't vote in the primary or voted for a less personally loathsome candidate might feel that they have no choice but to support the loathsome standard bearer, lest the Democrat wins.

But that's not always the calculation. Sometimes it's possible to dump your loathsome leader for a non-loathsome leader with roughly the same policies. For example, Tories in the UK could dump Liz Truss--who has racked up an incredible record of negative achievements in a very short time--and still control Parliament and thus the government. And they may yet. Even so, the fact that Truss isn't already a back-bencher says something.

More striking examples involve Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. By the time of his impeachment, it was clear that Clinton was at best a narcissistic cad and quite possibly something substantially worse. Had Senate Democrats voted to remove Clinton, Al Gore--indistinguishable from Clinton on policy but less loathsome--would have been able to run for president with the advantages of incumbency. Likewise, had Senate Republicans voted to remove Trump (during his first impeachment), they would have gotten a more reliably conservative and substantially less loathsome president in Mike Pence.

So why did virtually no one see things that way? Part of the answer might be strategic. As the fate of those House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021 shows, a vote to convict Trump by any Senate Republican would have guaranteed a very likely successful primary challenge. So even if removing Trump would have been good for the Republicans and their agenda overall, it would have been bad for the political future of individual Republicans in Congress.

Perhaps some of that same logic applied in Clinton's case as well. Although Clinton was barred from seeking another term by the 22nd Amendment, he had an undeniable charisma and appeal, so that at least some members of the Democratic Party base would have been angered by their representative or Senator voting to impeach or remove him.

That said, in all of these cases, there seems to be another phenomenon at work as well--a rally-'round-our-leader/nominee phenomenon. Even if the GOP would be better off with Pence than with Trump and the Democrats better off with Gore than with Clinton, the very fact that Side A moves against the leader of Side B leads the members of Team B to want to defend "their" leader and thus to minimize the loathsomeness of said leader's behavior. Politics may not be entirely tribal, but there is a very strong tribal element.

If the foregoing is correct, then Herschel Walker's despicable behavior and hypocrisy won't much damage his chances of winning the Georgia Senate seat. They may even help him.

Postscript: After I wrote and posted the foregoing, it occurred to me that Truss is in a somewhat different category from Walker, Clinton, and Trump. So far as I know, she is not personally loathsome--although she did have an extramarital affair that nearly cost her her political career. I included Truss mostly because she seems to be a spectacularly bad politician. In that sense, she's the opposite of Clinton. Even so, every second she remains PM raises the question of why stick with her. I suppose the best non-tribal answer is something like "stability." Having so recently exchanged Boris Johnson for Truss (not to mention Queen Elizabeth II for King Charles III), another change could be jarring. Even so, that seems like a small price to pay for a functioning government and economy.