Roy Moore fights his inner demons. It's not pretty.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Senate from Alabama, during a campaign event on Tuesday. (Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

I don’t normally do this, but when it comes to this Roy Moore situation, let’s start out today by invoking the memorable words of our president.

Because if you’re running for a Senate seat that Republicans absolutely have to have, and if you’re easily the best chance they have to retain that seat, and if, despite all this, the same Republican leaders who have steadfastly stood by Donald Trump for the last year, even as they privately (and sometimes publicly) worried that he might destroy the country and accidentally annihilate the world, are bailing on you so fast and so frantically that they’re actually talking about refusing to seat you if you win, then let’s just put it this way:

You’ve got to be one bad hombre.

I’m not a fan of media stampedes, generally. And I suppose it’s possible that the ever-growing list of women who have accused Moore, in highly detailed accounts, of general creepiness and outright assault on teenage girls have all been put up to it by nefarious Democratic operatives.

But I’m guessing the only ones who really believe that now are longtime, willfully blind supporters and Breitbart editors who profit from their insistence that reality is the opposite of whatever the coastal, elite media say it is.

(Related: Apparently someone operating on Moore’s behalf has been calling people in Alabama posing as a sleazy Washington Post reporter named “Bernie Bernstein” who is trying to dig up more gossip about Moore. I mean, you can’t do better than that? There are plenty of names that sound more realistic. Like “Philip Roth,” or maybe “Hank Greenberg.” Use some creativity.)

Anyway, it seems to me there’s a lesson in this whole fiasco that voters across the spectrum would do well to remember, whether Moore somehow rebounds or is finished for good. Whenever someone runs for office as the arbiter of private morality, it’s worth asking yourself what he or she might be running from.

There are, of course, plenty of loudly moralizing politicians who’ve adopted that persona mainly because they think it will get them where they want to go. Sarah Palin — you remember her — consciously refashioned herself as a culture warrior, even as her own family devolved into a kind of public soap opera, because that’s where the applause and the money were.

But then you have a religious moralizer like Moore, who seems for all the world to be the truest of believers. Although Moore has never been elected to anything outside of Alabama, no one covering national politics over the last few decades could fail to have known who he was or what he stood for.

This is a guy who suffered for the Ten Commandments more than anyone since Moses. He was twice elected chief justice of the state Supreme Court and was forced to step down both times — once for refusing to remove his monument to God’s law from the courthouse grounds, and again for defying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage.

Moore’s fans in Alabama — most of whom are good people, I’m sure — are left to wonder, as people always do in these instances, how to reconcile the Moore they knew with the predator they’re reading about now in the papers. How could a man so devoted to public morality have been hitting on teenage girls by signing their yearbooks?

But it’s really not confounding at all. The truth is that moralizing and scandal are flip sides of the same filthy coin. Rigid intolerance is often the sign of one who can barely tolerate himself.

It turns out that all that time Moore was raising hell about morality and religious values, he was exorcising personal demons at the public’s expense. He was posturing as the moral pillar he badly wished he were, in order to somehow repress the weak, wicked man he knew himself to be.

You see this everywhere you look in public life. We know now that too many men, agonized by their own struggle with pedophilia, flock to the priesthood because they think they can redeem themselves. We’ve seen famous preachers come to tears railing against greed and adultery, because on some level they know they’re preaching to the mirror.

We’ve watched a media personality like Bill O’Reilly lecture us every night on the sanctity of moral values, while paying off the women he demeaned and bullied. We’ve witnessed the disgrace of a conservative politician like Larry Craig, the former senator who frowned on homosexuality until he was busted for lewd conduct in a men’s room and famously claimed he was the victim of his own “wide stance.”

I’ve often heard it whispered in Washington that there is a larger concentration of closeted gay men working to restrict gay rights in the halls of Congress than you would find anywhere in the general population. Denial will make you a hypocrite faster than ambition ever can.

And this isn’t strictly the province of religious conservatives, or of conservatives generally. I’m reminded, too, of John Edwards, who reinvented himself before the 2008 campaign as a moralizing liberal, stridently lecturing Americans about forgotten children in poverty and the need for responsible fathers — even as he lied outright to avoid acknowledging a child of his own.

It’s hard not to think now that Edwards, in his own mind, had somehow conflated the personal and the political — that he believed he could atone in his public life for the sins he could scarcely bring himself to admit privately.

I feel for a lot of these conflicted public servants — in a way I could never sympathize, as a father, with Roy Moore, given the stories we’ve heard. But your anguish shouldn’t be ours. The public square isn’t a substitute for therapy.

I’ve written before about a bit of wisdom I once picked up from a psychologist friend of mine, who said that people always make you feel the way the world makes them feel about themselves. I was talking then about Trump — about how small and unworthy his rhetoric could make us appear.

Roy Moore, it seems to me, spent the better part of 20 years trying to make a lot of people in Alabama feel dirty and flawed and unwanted. If he makes it to Washington and gets himself seated (which I really doubt), you can bet he’ll do more of the same.

Sooner or later, it’s up to us to recognize this moral policing in our politics for what it often is: the accumulation of self-loathing, with nowhere else to go.

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