Richard Shelby has held public office in Alabama since 1971. Yet, as someone who personifies the term “seasoned veteran politician,” sometimes Shelby doesn’t act like it.
During last year’s infamous United States Senate special election, Alabama’s senior member of Congress upset a lot of Republicans by not supporting Roy Moore in his bid against Democrat Doug Jones.
He publicly stated that instead of voting for Moore, he was going to write in “a distinguished Republican.”
As expected, that didn’t go over well for many. At a Roy Moore event in the Wiregrass on the eve of that special election, the mention of Shelby resulted in boos and jeers from rally goers.
That ill will is still present. At the ALGOP Winter Meeting earlier this year in Montgomery, usually a mundane event, pro-Shelby and anti-Shelby factions clashed over a proposal to censure him.
The motion was tabled indefinitely in a 58-42 percent margin, which is symbolic of where we are now — a Republican Party united on everything else, but still with unresolved issues about Sen. Richard Shelby.
Over the last month, some of the wizards of thought that populate editorial pages and political websites in Alabama politics have told Republicans they need to move on from the Roy Moore debacle and they should be damn proud of having a conservative statesman like Shelby on the team.
All of this happy talk showcased in the media from pro-Shelby forces in Alabama politics is essentially wallpapering over a problem.
Deep down, this unresolved dispute involving “a few right-wing fringe members,” as the self-important Alabama political columnist Steve Flowers describes them, that make 42 percent of the ALGOP’s executive committee, will linger.
Here’s how to move on from Roy Moore: An acknowledgment from Shelby that he could have handled things better.
It would go a long way for Shelby to directly address disgruntled Republicans instead of having his surrogates lecture them about his underappreciated greatness.
Let’s keep in mind a few things here. Yes, Shelby has done a lot for the state of Alabama, but these celebrated achievements were made possible with tax dollars.
It’s not as if Shelby is a lethal combination of Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill and Patrick Henry delivering statesman-like oratory extolling the virtues of sending American tax dollars to Alabama. He is the master of navigating the cesspool of Washington, D.C., and reaping its rewards in the name of bringing home the bacon.
That’s not exactly a textbook definition of honor.
Let us also not forget that before Moore won the GOP nomination last September, Shelby was working behind the scenes for Moore’s eventual primary runoff opponent, Luther Strange.
Shelby and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to clear a path for Strange. After Strange’s appointment by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley, he took on the moniker of “incumbent.” Other potential challengers for the Republican nomination were discouraged from running. Strange allies threatened political consultants with being blackballed if they considered taking a client that sought to challenge “Big Luther.”
Luther Strange was their guy, and he was going to be installed as Alabama’s U.S. Senator, even if it required brute force.
It isn’t clear why Strange was the U.S. Senator Alabamians had to have. Traditionally, elected Republicans in these high-profile primary battles remain on the sidelines and then go all-in for the eventual nominee. Shelby did the exact opposite.
It would be foolish to assume that wasn’t going to upset anyone. Shelby could at least demonstrate contrition for that phase of last year’s debacle.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s not pretend Shelby has always been this Reagan-like figure on the American political scene.
Shelby was a member of the Democratic Party until 1994. Yes, he was one of the more conservative Democrats. However, during Shelby’s time in the Democratic Party, he aligned himself with Tip O’Neill, Jim Wright, Robert Byrd and George Mitchell.
To get to the Senate in the first place, Shelby had to unseat Jeremiah Denton, who was certainly a bona fide conservative, in the 1986 midterms.
As late as 1993, Shelby insisted he was a loyal Democrat.
“I’m a Democrat,” Shelby said at the time, according to the March 28, 1993, edition of The Anniston Star. “I’ve stayed with the Democrats, grew up as a Democrat all my life. The Democratic Party has been big enough and diverse enough to hold a lot of us, including a lot of us from the South that are more conservative than the Eastern liberal wing of the party. But I’d like to work within the Democratic Party as far as I can, and when I can’t, I vote on the other side. I always have.”
Shelby switched to the Republican Party on Nov. 9, 1994.
What spurred his change? Did National Review start offering delivery in Tuscaloosa in the early 1990s? Was he listening to Rush Limbaugh? Was there a Milton Friedman lecture series going on at The University of Alabama?
On Nov. 8, 1994, the day before Shelby switched parties, the GOP won control of Congress, which most likely had something to do with it.
With this history, why should any critics of Richard Shelby be shunned?
It’s not only so-called establishment Republicans, but the usual cast of left-of-center, pseudo-intellectual elitists featured on AL(dot)com acting as if it is absurd to find any fault with Shelby.
It wasn’t as if Shelby’s detractors were seeking an excommunication from the Republican Party. And given he probably won’t seek re-election when his term is up in 2022, all of this is nothing more than symbolic.
However, if Republicans want a unified effort in this year’s midterms, recognizing the legitimate complaints about Alabama’s senior elected Republican instead of dismissing them as kooky and conspiratorial would go a long way toward making it happen.