Mitch McConnell: I believe Roy Moore's accusers and think he should step aside

The refrain from most Republicans, especially in the White House, has been that the accusations are “disqualifying if true.” McConnell himself used that formulation on Thursday, when the WaPo story first broke. No more. He believes the accusers, he says, and it’s time for Moore to step aside. He’s all-in.

Moore has already slapped back:

What’s McConnell’s angle here? He knows that his name has become a curse word among populists and that shoving Moore hard towards the exit will make them cling tighter to him out of spite. Is he trying to get Moore elected by solidifying his grassroots base in case some of them are starting to waver?

Nah. I think he’s making a rational assessment of his own interests here and discerning no downside to pronouncing Moore guilty as charged. Normally a majority leader would never do that to a Republican candidate, not wanting to risk losing a red Senate seat or to alienate the incoming senator just in case he ends up winning anyway. McConnell needn’t worry about that with Moore, though. Moore’s already signaled that he plans to be a pain in McConnell’s ass in the Senate, even promising to vote to replace him as majority leader if given the chance. And the Moore/McConnell squabble is really just one battle in the larger war between McConnell and Steve Bannon, with both sides seemingly having concluded that control of the direction of the GOP caucus is more important right now than having a Democrat take over Jeff Sessions’s old seat. The latest:

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, is vowing to depose him, telling The New York Times that “I have an objective that Mitch McConnell will not be majority leader, and I believe will be done before this time next year.” Mr. McConnell, he added, “has to go.”

To that, Mr. McConnell laughed. “You can write that down,” he said in an interview on Friday. “I laughed. Ha-ha. That’s a perfect response.”…

“Mitch will be very calm, he’ll be very strategic, he’ll be very surgical and he will eventually eviscerate Mr. Bannon, and Bannon won’t even know what happened to him,” said Bill Stone, a former chairman of the Republican Party in Louisville who is close to Mr. McConnell. “Bannon is dealing with a man of intellect and a man of experience and a man of patience and resolve like he’s never met in his life.”

Doubtless Bannon knew that Luther Strange would be a safer bet in the general election against a Democrat than Moore would be, but he thought Moore was worth the gamble because his top priority right now is building a nationalist caucus inside Congress. McConnell may have chosen to engage him on those terms: If Bannon’s willing to make life easier for a Democrat in order to advance his agenda, then Mitch will too. Here’s a tailor-made soundbite Doug Jones can run to try to persuade more establishment Republicans in Alabama to cross the aisle for him. McConnell, as majority leader, can’t endorse a Democrat himself but declaring the Republican nominee unfit because he’s a presumptive child molester is as close as it gets to doing so.

Besides, McConnell’s in a “heads I win, tails Bannon loses” position here. If Moore withdraws or ends up losing the election, McConnell gets to do an “I told you so” tour warning Republican voters that Bannon’s nominees are fringe-dwellers with weird eccentricities who can’t get elected. Moore’s demise will also suggest that Mitch’s political muscles are bigger than Bannon’s. If, in spite of everything, Moore hangs on and wins, McConnell now has a reason to be dismissive of his opposition in the Senate. “Why should I let Moore’s populist criticism bother me?” McConnell can say. “He’s a man of terrible character. I wear his scorn as a badge of pride. If this is the sort of person populists want representing them in Congress, let the rest of the GOP take note of that and vote accordingly.”

There’s another reason why McConnell might want to hit Moore hard now. If Moore wins, Democrats will pressure McConnell and the Senate GOP to expel Moore from the chamber. Realistically McConnell can’t do that for the same reason the delegates couldn’t torpedo Trump at last year’s convention — there are too many populist voters among the base who’d be outraged and stay home in November if the establishment attempted to thwart the will of the people. McConnell will be stuck saying “The people have spoken” and seating Moore despite everything. Democrats will batter him for that, though, which I think is why he’s hitting Moore unusually hard now. He wants to signal the GOP’s disapproval of Moore to neutralize the “you support child molesters!” criticism before he inevitably decides that Moore must be seated.

Exit question: Is McConnell’s “I believe the accusers” statement a signal for other Senate Republicans to join him? Susan Collins has now also called on Moore to quit. No “if true” caveats apply.