×

Roy Moore sex scandal is a big win for Mitch McConnell

  • No matter what happens in the Roy Moore sex scandal, Mitch McConnell comes out the winner.
  • McConnell continues to show a ruthless and effective ability to hold onto power.
  • Establishment Republicans are speaking out against Moore because that's what suits their political agenda.
Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore, speaks at a campaign rally on September 25, 2017 in Fairhope, Alabama.
Getty Images
Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore, speaks at a campaign rally on September 25, 2017 in Fairhope, Alabama.

In the continuing Roy Moore sexual misconduct allegations controversy, there are a lot of unknowns. But we do know one thing: Mitch McConnell can't lose.

The rest of us? Not so much.

The accusations against Moore and the nature of those allegations couldn't have come at a better time for McConnell, whose top priority is and has always been consolidating his personal power in the Senate.

Politically, this works out well for McConnell because the news broke a few weeks after Moore defeated Senator Luther Strange in the Alabama special election primary. Strange was the candidate McConnell backed in the race, and the loss was a blow to his personal political fortunes.

But now, Moore looks just like the unpredictable non-establishment approved candidate McConnell said he was all along. Of course, there's no way to know if McConnell backed Strange with so much public support and funding because he thought he was the better candidate, or because during the primary campaign, Moore made his opposition to McConnell's leadership a huge issue. Now, McConnell looks a lot more like the political leader who chooses reasonable candidates who can win elections. Since the allegations broke, Moore's lead in the polls has almost completely evaporated in every survey.

And the timing couldn't be better for McConnell and others opposed to Moore's candidacy. These sexual allegations come just as the Harvey Weinstein scandal has given maximum public attention to any and all people accusing famous and powerful men of sexual assault and harassment, even from decades in the past. No other type of accusation could have burned the candidate in a more serious way than these allegations at this particular time.

"Now, Moore looks just like the unpredictable non-establishment approved candidate McConnell said he was all along."

McConnell has handled this controversy with a keen understanding of the current tenor of the country. Note that Monday, McConnell did not simply call for Moore to step aside from the race. He used the very politically correct term for responding to sexual assault allegations these days by uttering the phrase, "I believe the women, yes."

All the following likely scenarios favor McConnell:

If Moore refuses to step down and he loses to Democrat Doug Jones, he will become the first Republican Senate candidate to lose an election in Alabama since 1990 when the very conservative anti-abortion, anti-gun control incumbent Democrat Howell Heflin defeated Bill Cabaniss. In that case, McConnell will be able to suggest that Republican candidates he doesn't support aren't even safe bets in the reddest of states. And that will give him a big leg up on Steve Bannon who is unashamedly running a national campaign to run challengers to McConnell supporters in the 2018 midterm election primaries.

If Moore does withdraw from the race, whether his Republican replacement wins or loses McConnell can credibly claim that all of this happened too late to salvage the situation. Write-in campaigns, as anyone replacing Moore at this late stage would have to mount, are always a serious long shot.

If Moore somehow wins, there are growing calls from Republicans to expel him from the Senate. If that effort is successful, and with Democrats joining in such an expulsion vote it's a good bet it would be, then Alabama Republican Governor Kay Ivey would have the power to handpick Moore's replacement with most likely another Republican. In this scenario, McConnell has his cake and gets to keep his 52-48 GOP majority in the Senate too.

Sadly in politics, even horrific allegations of sexual assault and preying on underage victims only seem to elicit politically-centered responses. McConnell and many other establishment politicians are piling on Moore, and it's hard not notice that they're doing this to a man who has squarely been threatening that establishment his entire career.

It may be cynical to believe that McConnell doesn't care all that much about the truth of these sexual misconduct allegations against Moore other than what they mean for him politically. But this is a consummate politician who has shown all the signs of craving position and title over all else.

But it's an empty title and a false crown. McConnell is indeed savvy at holding onto the Senate Republican leadership position, but what does he have to show for it other than the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court? Not much.

If he had any real shame, McConnell would have stepped down as majority leader as soon as the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare failed this past summer. The whole point of being majority leader is to wield the power of the majority party in the upper chamber to get key bills passed. McConnell proved he can't do that, period. Even tax reform appears to be in danger.

And remember, McConnell has been majority leader since January 2015. So this isn't just about the problems in coordinating legislative efforts with the haphazard Trump administration. McConnell was also unable to work out any kind of deal with President Obama during the first two years of his time as Senate leader.

At some point, Senate Republicans and Senate Republican candidates should come to the realization that McConnell's obsession for personal power trumps all else. It's something that's clear in this Moore mess, was clear during the Obamacare repeal fiasco, and will likely play a serious role in the current battle for tax reform.

So if you're a Republican or any American who wants to see some progress in Washington, you needn't shed a tear for Roy Moore's sinking ship. But everyone should be concerned that the biggest roadblock to progress remains a politician like Mitch McConnell who will do almost anything to keep his job, no matter how ineffective he is at actually doing it.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.