“It sends a chilling message to all people,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and incoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, intoned. “The fact is that this is a man who is four heartbeats from the presidency, and we cannot have in 2002 those kinds of views being expressed by someone who is setting policy.”
Well, actually, the “fact” is not that Trent Lott is four heartbeats from the presidency. Lott may be the fourth-highest-ranking Republican — depending on how you count — but party leaders aren’t in the line of succession for the presidency. Our Founding Fathers would launch out of their graves like MX missiles at the thought of a general saluting, say, Terry McAuliffe.
Regardless, we can forgive the Congressional Black Caucus for some rhetorical excess. After all, for the first time in years, they deserve to be pissed off. No need to rehash what Lott said — I’m sure many readers are already sick of hearing it. For the record, I qualify, I think, as a leading defender of Lott merely by saying he’s more likely an apologetic buffoon than a unapologetic racist.
The way this story is playing out, liberals are getting giddy at a leading Republican’s self-immolation. Republicans and conservatives are being forced to repudiate “one of their own” and getting the usual pats-on-the-head from self-righteous liberals who expect us to then go through the entire conservative yearbook, denouncing every conservative not invited to the NAACP Christmas/Kwanzaa party. And, as usual, black activists are excited by all the chum in the water. True to form, Jesse Jackson was on the horn to NBC News calling Lott a “confederate” almost immediately.
The conventional wisdom holds that this is all terrible news for conservatives. My friends Andrew Sullivan and David Frum both believe this has done lasting damage to the GOP. The Wall Street Journal declared Tuesday that Lott had “played right into the hands of opponents who are eager to paint the Republican Party’s Southern ascendance as nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry.” Frum wrote: “Lott’s unwise words have reduced the ability of all Republicans to speak frankly about race and racial problems.” And I wrote that Trent Lott’s hair is actually a space-age polymer similar to the material used in the George Foreman grill. Okay, I didn’t write that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
And, just because something is the conventional wisdom doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Lott’s gaffe will, in all likelihood, make water-cooler debates with liberals more annoying for many years to come. Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman, and Eric Alterman will be able to update their CSMs (Cheap-Shot Macros) on their computer keyboards. Instead of hitting F4 and getting some quote from the student newspaper at Bob Jones University, they will have a fresh zinger against “racist” conservatives straight out of the mouth of helmet-head himself, I mean the Senate Majority Leader. Indeed, for a time it won’t even be a cheap shot. But, like Jesse Jackson’s “hymietown” remark, it will eventually fade from public view. Of course, Jesse Jackson’s gaffe didn’t permanently damage his prestige among liberals, who eventually forgave him totally (liberals can forgive black civil-rights “leaders” of any transgression), whereas Lott will be — and should be — permanently damaged by this.
But this isn’t a huge turkey dinner for the Democrats, or at least it need not be. In the last election, the Democrats lost numerous vital races, not because blacks didn’t turn out enough, but because white people turned out for Republicans. Governor Jim Hodges of South Carolina lost a quarter of the white support he had in 1998. Jeb Bush cleaned McBride’s clock because white moderates overwhelmingly voted Republican. Gayle Andrews, a Democratic consultant in charge of rallying Florida’s black community, told the New York Times of Bush’s victory: “He won overwhelmingly because white folks voted for that man. Black folks didn’t vote for that man.”
Now, there are several reasons for this trend. Democrats spent the election whining about a tax cut they wouldn’t advocate repealing and a war they said they supported. The president is very popular. Tom Daschle is the guy you sat next to in high school for four years but can’t remember. National security is a Republican issue. The GOP finally invested in getting out the vote. And so on.
But another reason Republicans did better among whites is that Democrats didn’t — and during the war on terror couldn’t — demonize the GOP as racist. White people, believe it or not, don’t like to think of themselves as racists. This was the logic behind the 2000 GOP convention’s cavalcade of inclusiveness. All of those blacks and Hispanics were on stage not so much to get the votes of blacks and Hispanics (though that was certainly part of it). They were up there to demonstrate to moderate whites that it’s okay to vote for the GOP again. This infuriated liberals, who, in a bonfire of hypocrisy, found themselves condemning the GOP for doing precisely what liberals had said they should do: be more inclusive, reach out to minorities, etc.
Trent Lott’s comments will make this project more difficult. But we should also keep in mind that average Americans don’t read the American Prospect or care what Paul Krugman thinks. What they’re seeing on TV and in their newspapers is Republicans and conservatives repudiating Lott’s remarks and even calling for his resignation as Majority Leader. They aren’t seeing Republicans stick up for Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond, or Jim Crow in any way. That’s instructive in terms of public relations. That’s instructive substantively in terms of where the conservative movement is today.
Andrew Sullivan wants Bush to use this as a Sister Souljah moment and denounce Lott explicitly. I think that might be overkill, in part because the GOP is already having a Sister Souljah moment. Collectively, the conservative movement and the Republican party are rejecting this buffoonery. My sense is that average Americans see that. If Bush went out and called for Lott’s head, it might make Bush seem like a craven weathervane for elite liberal opinion rather than a brave opponent of bigotry. Besides, Bush is a moralist and a loyalist. He probably takes Lott at his word that he’s sorry and that it was a mistake.
Besides, there’s something else the public is seeing. They’re watching the Congressional Black Caucus become the spine of the Democratic party. Both Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt are in trouble with the CBC for forgiving Trent Lott too quickly. Sheila Jackson Lee and Maxine Waters, Tweedle-dumb and Tweedle-evil respectively, are complaining that the Democratic party doesn’t care enough about “black concerns” — when catering to “black concerns” usually means being to the left of Ted Kennedy. Nancy Pelosi’s tantrum on this incident probably constitutes the first time millions of Americans heard her speak on anything of substance.
So this could be bad news for the Democrats, too. Trent Lott may represent some old baggage the GOP could do without. But so does the Congressional Black Caucus. With few exceptions, the CBC — and much of the civil-rights establishment, for that matter — are as ossified and embarrassing as Lott. I haven’t been able to take Jackson seriously since he called D.C. statehood America’s most pressing civil-rights issue. That’s like saying the lack of gold doorknobs is the most pressing problem for public housing. In other words, it demonstrated to me that Jackson mints civil-rights crises for his personal benefit. He’s a shyster and shakedown artist who only looks like an estimable statesman alongside Al Sharpton. Maxine Waters, Castroite thug that she is, might as well wear one black-leather glove to work.
Democratic leaders are in something of a bind. If they become mouthpieces for the black-leftist fringe, they will only play into the stereotype that the Democrats are a party for angry victimologists. The angry victimologists may have a legitimate grievance — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Democrats will win a lot more white moderate votes by becoming still more identified with Maxine Waters and her ilk.
I’m not using this situation to say “Oh yeah, what about you guys?” to the Democrats, as tempting as that may be (Mark Levin has done a good job of that (here and here), by the way). What I am saying is that conservatives are using this mess to clean up their dirty linen — and the voters see that. Democrats, meanwhile, are screaming bloody murder while wearing their filthy linen — and the voters will notice that too.