Matthew Stokes: Jones moderates on vote, but not rhetoric

Matthew Stokes: Jones moderates on vote, but not rhetoric
Matthew Stokes

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

A few weeks ago, I used this space to implore Doug Jones to moderate his public stance on a handful of issues.  I did this in part because I think America functions well with two strong political parties, and right now, I do not believe we have them.  

Jones has a unique opportunity to help resurrect a politics that believes in an active federal government while making it clear that you reject both a kinda-sorta welfare state in the common sense, and socialism in the more extreme case.  This sort of responsible centrism forces the Republican Party to deal with substantive issues like health care, education, and, yes, even climate change. When responsible Democrats are in fact responsible, the GOP has to take them seriously.  No more eye rolls about Silicon Valley liberals and big city values. I want Doug Jones and his fellow moderate Democrats to do better because it forces my side to be better, and, even if my side loses, there are worse things in the world than a moderate Democrat.  Just ask Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Jones has been rather quiet as a senator.  I suspect this has been intentional; he has tried to stay out of the limelight in order to present himself as a reasonable candidate during his reelection bid in 2020.  That’s fine as far as it goes, but the course of events simply won’t let him off the hook. I don’t expect a Senator to answer for everything that takes place in the House of Representatives, but Jones could try to offer a moderate response to the outlandish statements from a cadre of freshman representatives on issues like anti-Semitism, the economy, and foreign policy.  Jones is likely to oppose President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, and while this will not placate his Republican opposition, he would do well to go before the people of Alabama and make his case. I suggested recently that Jones could support Ben Sasse’s Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, and I am grateful that he did.  

That vote was a positive step towards the middle, and it mitigates at least one talking point against him.  I don’t even think this was an entirely cynical move on Jones’ part. I don’t have any inside knowledge, but I find it hard to believe that Jones was voting against his conscience.  Put another way, he recognized the merits of Senator Sasse’s bill, and voted accordingly. This was really a bold move against a major lobby – Planned Parenthood, et al. – within his own party, and he should be commended for the vote.  I’m a firm believer that our leaders, especially in the Senate, owe us their judgment, not their deference, and I’m grateful that Jones gave us that much.

Jones’ Republican opponents are attacking him for his positions on a number of other issues.  That’s expected as part of the normal ebb and flow of politics. Of course I agree with that line of attack; whatever Jones is as a politician, he is not a conservative and I disagree on his proposed policy solutions to any number of concerns. Yet those policies don’t scare me, and I have argued here before that Republicans overplay their hand when they act too fearful.  Say what you will about Jones, but he’s no Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Policies can be altered, tweaked, or outright repealed. I do not fear expanded Medicaid or a carbon tax. What I fear are the politics of division based on culture, race, and class. I have seen it on my side for too long, and Jones is now testing the same water.

Appearing on CBS’ Face the Nation last week, Jones suggested that Republicans do not want African-Americans and other minorities to vote.  (Video is here)  Jones’ contention is that it is the work of Republicans at the state level who have gerrymandered districts in order to weaken minority votes while at the time adding restrictions that make voting more difficult.  He does not specify what those restrictions might be, and his interviewer, Margaret Brennan, fails to follow up on the assertion. While Jones does not specifically go after his home state, it is only natural that Republican leaders in Montgomery would take offense at the claim.  Secretary of State John Merrill fired back in comments to Yellowhammer News, noting that voter rolls have expanded during his tenure. Indeed, for all the concerns about voting rights in Alabama, the state’s left leaning media has resorted to vague criticism of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder that struck down much of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  It seems that if Merrill was actively restricting the voting rights of any minorities, that evidence would be readily available.  To this point, it is not, and Merrill has been open in his desire to make sure that all eligible voters are able to do so.

Democrats have argued for years that while voter fraud is a problem in some marginal cases, it is not a widespread phenomenon.  There is some truth to that, and recent events in North Carolina exposed some Republicans as profound hypocrites on the matter. The problem with Jones’ remarks is that he doesn’t marshall evidence to back up his claim. Where and how is voter suppression in Alabama actually taking place?  Should the hours of polling change with polls opening and closing an hour earlier? Are the state’s laws about absentee ballots antiquated in a way that negatively impacts shift workers in today’s economy? These are discussions that can be had in good faith, and I have to think that Secretary Merrill would be open to this discussion.  If Jones could produce even a few dozen instances where minority voters were purposefully, blatantly denied the ability to vote, it would be potent. To date, neither Jones nor a sympathetic media have marshalled such evidence.

The real concern here is that Jones is attempting to garner support by telling his base that his opponents – The Other Guys – are denying voters a fundamental American freedom.  It’s not enough to say Republican policies would be harmful; that’s Politics 101. What Jones is doing here is dividing politics at both the state and national level into a game of Us vs. Them.  It is much harder to heal divisions that are exacerbated by a politics of resentment and division. I have criticized the Right for doing this; indeed this is Trumpism’s original sin. Jones’ argument is based on a smidgeon of truth in that poor, rural voters may have a difficult time getting to the government office to get a qualifying ID, but it does not follow that we live in a state that is systematically attempting to deny African-Americans, or anyone else, the ability the vote.  Jones rose above this temptation when voting to protect the children who survived botched abortions, because he recognized there was a need beyond partisan dog-whistles. He is failing that standard here. Jones can be an honest broker when he identifies concrete problems and presents good faith solutions. His comments this week did none of the above, and they served neither his state nor his attempt at reelection.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at lookagain@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.