In politics and entertainment, very different responses to sexual misconduct claims
Two major news stories about allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent and powerful men broke around the same time on Thursday afternoon.
Within 24 hours, one of the accused had lost a film distributor, management, a publicist, and relationships with two networks. The other was still the frontrunner to become the next U.S. senator from the state of Alabama.
Comedian Louis C.K.’s proclivity for masturbating in front of women has apparently long been a subject of rumors among comedians, but five accusers went on the record with the New York Times to detail their encounters with him.
The Washington Post reported that former Judge Roy Moore, the Republican nominee to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat in Alabama, initiated sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was a 32-year-old assistant district attorney. The Post article also cites three other women who say Moore took a romantic interest in them when they were teenagers.
On Friday, C.K. issued a somewhat convoluted but remorseful statement admitting his actions.
Moore, who faces Democrat Doug Jones in a special election on December 12, flatly denied the claims, blaming his enemies and the “Obama-Clinton machine.” By Thursday night, he was blasting out fundraising emails citing the need to fight back against his “evil” accusers in the media.
In an interview with Sean Hannity Friday, Moore called the allegations “completely false and misleading.” He denied ever knowing the 14-year-old and said his relationships with the other women quoted were “altogether appropriate.”
Republicans in Congress were quick to conditionally denounce Moore following the Washington Post report, with most saying that if the allegations are true, he should step down. They did not specify what it would take to convince them, but the Post story is based on interviews with more than 30 people corroborating the claims.
On Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee officially cut ties with Moore’s fundraising efforts. Alabama’s senior senator and the state’s governor were among those who called for Moore to step down if the accusations are true, but many of the state’s other top Republicans are standing by him.
“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus,” Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler told The Washington Examiner. “There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here.”
Sexual contact with a minor would indeed be illegal, but Zeigler’s comment reflected the skepticism of many Moore supporters. Brent Buchanan, a Montgomery-based Republican strategist whose firm has conducted polling on the race, said those who know Moore will never believe it.
“He just this afternoon clarified more, categorically denying the charges. What else is there to say if he didn't do what was alleged?” he asked.
“I hear Mitch McConnell and John McCain and Jeff Flake, and there’s probably not three people in this world the people of Alabama could care less about what their opinions are,” said Jon Gray, an Alabama GOP strategist unaffiliated with the campaign.
People who already hate Moore will still hate him, but those who love him will accept his denials and cheer his attacks on the press.
“I think Roy Moore wins,” Gray said. “I don’t think it changes the outcome of the race.”
Even before the latest accusations, Moore was a divisive candidate with a long history of controversial, offensive, and anti-gay statements. As a judge, he was twice removed from the bench for violating his oath of office to resist court orders.
“Moore’s supporters are extremely loyal and they’re very locked into him and they’re going to dismiss these allegations and hearsay and stale and political sabotage,” said Steve Flowers, a former Alabama state representative who writes a weekly column on Alabama politics for more than 60 newspapers.
Despite the efforts of Senate GOP leadership and President Trump himself, Republican primary voters chose Moore over the seat’s current occupant, Sen. Luther Strange.
“What the attacks on Moore revealed is, when you attack him, it just energizes his base more,” Flowers said.
Buchanan predicted the race will tighten but Moore will regain his lead.
“Many in Hollywood aren't denying the allegations, and their behavior over the years didn't really refute the possibility,” he said. “Judge Roy Moore has lived a Christ-like life for the many decades he's been in the public eye. I think that's why most voters don't believe the allegations.”
Very early polling already reflects that tightening. Opinion-Savvy conducted a poll Thursday and found the race has tightened from a 6-point Moore lead to a virtual tie. Given a choice between Moore, Jones, and writing in Strange, Jones now holds a 2-point lead, with Strange getting 12 percent.
Gray is highly skeptical of the poll, which basically captured a kneejerk reaction hours after the story broke, although he noted it still shows Moore holding a slight lead head-to-head with Jones.
“We really can’t poll this until next week,” he said. “We need a full saturation of this for 96 hours. This is the worst case scenario right now, this is ground zero and the poll out today still has him up by one point.”
The claims about C.K. and Moore come amid a frenzy of similar stories that have followed reports of harassment and assault by film producer Harvey Weinstein last month. In the weeks since the New York Times and the New Yorker published the first exposes on Weinstein, women have come forward to speak out against other producers, actors, and media figures.
Some, including Kevin Spacey and journalist Mark Halperin, have faced swift and severe career consequences. Producers announced this week that Spacey is being edited out of the film “All the Money in the World” and replaced by Christopher Plummer.
The #metoo campaign has spread to other arenas too, including politics. Several female members of Congress have revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse in their own careers. Those claims spurred the Senate this week to approve legislation to require harassment training for senators and staff.
It remains to be seen whether men on Capitol Hill will face the same kind of wave of public accusations, confessions, and comeuppance currently taking place in the entertainment industry. There is reason to doubt they will, though.
About a month before an election last fall, a Republican campaign was shaken by allegations of sexual harassment by numerous women. The candidate ignored calls to step down, dismissed those accusations as lies, and is now president.
“A year ago, a lot of people in the Republican Party held their nose and covered their ears and closed their eyes and voted for a guy they thought was loud and offensive, having just heard in his own voice how offensive he can be,” Gray said, referring to the “Access Hollywood” recording of President Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women released last October.
“Why would anything be any different 12 months later?” he asked.
Based on his response so far, Matt Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said that appears to be Moore’s mindset, as he is following Trump’s playbook.
“It’s got to be on the mind of him and his supporters,” Dallek, author of “The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics,” said. “They look at Trump and he could not just survive this but he could parlay it into an attack on the fake news media. Moore sees what Trump survived and thinks, ‘Why not me?’”
The Trump comparison could complicate matters for Republican lawmakers who support the president but denounce Moore, according to Kathleen Dolan, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, particularly as Democrats attempt to revive interest in harassment claims against Trump.
“If they stand against him, then somebody’s going to say, ‘Why are you standing with the president when he’s accused of all these things?’” said Dolan, author of two books on women in politics.
The reactions to Thursday’s reports have been very different, but so are the stakes for those involved. While not working with Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey is a relatively obvious solution for Hollywood producers, fighting against Moore’s ascendance to the Senate could have dire consequences for Republicans.
Given the limited time until the election, they cannot remove him from the ballot and replace them with a candidate who is not facing pedophilia allegations. A write-in campaign by another Republican like Strange would risk splitting the vote and handing the race to Jones.
A Democratic victory would shrink the already-slim GOP majority in the Senate to one vote, making it even harder to pass any legislation without bipartisan support. As Republicans attempt to shepherd controversial reforms of the tax code and health care system through Congress, the loss of a seat has the potential to derail much of their agenda.
“At the end of the day, [Alabama voters] know what the scorecard is in D.C,” Gray said. “This is a big deal. This is a big deal for the whole country.”
Some in the GOP have argued that the ramifications of being the party that embraced and empowered a man who did what Moore is accused of would be more damaging in the long run than losing his seat now, and Dallek thinks they may be right.
“If Roy Moore wins, they retain the seat, but then they have Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate and that’s a problem for them,” he said.
Unflinching party loyalty is not a strictly Republican phenomenon. Dolan pointed back to Democrats who took heat for standing by President Bill Clinton through his sex scandals and impeachment trial in the 1990s because they did not want to lose power.
“Partisanship has become so much more important than it used to be. For many voters, the fact that [Moore] is a Republican is the most important thing,” she said.
Gray has heard a number of defenses from Moore supporters in the day since the news broke, and he noted one that distinguishes the accusation against Moore from those against people like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein: timing. For those who want to believe Moore, the incredibly inconvenient timing gives cause for suspicion.
“Roy Moore’s [accusers] didn’t just kind of show up. Roy Moore’s was an October surprise as we call it,” he said, adding that he first heard about the claims Tuesday, exactly five weeks before the election.
The Washington Post would say that is because it took time to carefully vet the women’s stories, but then, Roy Moore voters do not trust the Washington Post.
“There is a substantial part of the Republican Party, voters in Alabama, who say, ‘This is partly why we love Roy Moore,’ which is that he’s under attack by these liberal left wing enemies who are out to get him,” Dallek said.
The key factor in the race may be how these reports impact Republicans who do not really want a Democrat or Roy Moore representing them in the Senate.
“Where this allegation may make a difference is that upscale basically Republican voter who may have just been staying home on their couch on Election Day,” Flowers said. “This may be the straw that broke the camel’s back and they may go vote for Doug Jones.”
If Jones can get those people to the polls and draw out enough African-American voters, he has a chance, but Flowers expects Moore has an advantage when it comes to turnout for a special election.
“His people are more zealous and more fervent and more interested in voting,” he said.
No matter how credible the accusers seem, past experience in both parties has shown many voters will put political interests above morality.
“My sense is that it very well may motivate some segment of his most fiery supporters,” Dallek said.
There are far fewer people rushing out to watch Weinstein Company films and episodes of "Louie" in defiance of their critics.
That the hyperpartisanship of American politics may enable Moore to win this Senate seat for Republicans even if the allegations against him are true is not an outcome Gray is celebrating.
“I think we’ve become so polarized in politics that the answer is yes. Are we willing to look past the moral problems the candidate has?” he said. “Yes, and that’s a terrible place to be.”