Rather than strive to cut taxes, improve education, and battle terrorism, conservative activists have spent recent days cleaning up after Trent Lott. This will become a more-frequent chore if the Mississippi Republican does not stand down as Senate GOP leader.
Lott’s latest mess began on December 5 with his comments at a 100th birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.): “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
What problems? Martin Luther King’s courageous leadership? The Montgomery Bus Boycott? The Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Lott defended his comments as “a poor choice of words” in praise of a legendary colleague who, credit due, has mellowed in his very old age.
Lott’s words were poor — but familiar. As the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger reported on November 3, 1980, then-Rep. Lott, campaigning with Thurmond, said: “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.” Times change, but Lott’s song remains the same.
In fact, the singing senator has crooned from a grim hymnal for years. As the New York Post’s Robert A. George has recalled on NRO, Lott told the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Biloxi, Mississippi that “The spirit of [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform.”
Lott also received leaders of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens in his Senate office. An article on its website warned that America’s melting pot is creating a “slimy brown mass of glop.”
Democrats must be cheering. Dazed and confused after the midterm elections, they now single-mindedly will graffiti Lott’s name on every GOP initiative in the next Congress.
President Bush’s expected tax-relief package will be re-christened “the Trent Lott Tax Act, handcrafted to siphon money from poor urban blacks to rich suburban whites.”
Bush’s personal Social Security-account proposal will be branded “the Trent Lott Pension Scheme to mug black widows and deliver their retirement money to wealthy whites on Wall Street.”
The president’s school-choice reforms will be dubbed “Trent Lott’s secret plan to redistribute education funds from black classrooms to the manicured lawns of Andover and Exeter.”
And good luck to Republicans who are photographed with Lott. Their opponents surely will weave such pictures into campaign attack ads. What a surefire way to enrage black Democrats and drive them to the polls in 2004.
Unfair? Maybe. But fairness alone will not prevent Democrats from using their new, all-purpose bete noir to flog Republicans.
Meanwhile, what are black Republicans supposed to say when fellow blacks ask why we belong to a party whose Senate leader publicly applauded Thurmond’s 1948 presidential bid? Thurmond ran, in part, by opposing anti-lynching legislation — that is, prohibitions against hanging black men from trees until dead. If Republicans — black and otherwise — must spend the next two years reassuring Americans that we oppose lynching, we might as well pull white pillowcases over our heads.
Lott’s black problem would be bad enough were he a crafty parliamentarian or a strong-willed leader. Alas, he is neither.
Lott engineered the ill-conceived power-sharing agreement with Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) when the Senate was split last year, 50-50. Despite Vice President Cheney’s tie-breaking vote that could have maximized GOP control of committees, Lott gift-wrapped additional legislative influence for Senate Democrats. Daschle, of course, shredded this deal when Vermont Senator James Jeffords left the GOP, giving Democrats a one-seat edge.
As for his spine, Lott is a chiropractor’s dream. Here’s what he told radio host Oliver North when his inability to control Jeffords cost Republicans their majority: There is “something liberating about being in the minority — you’re not as consumed with trying to move the trains.”
Lott need not resign. Mississippians picked him, and — barring any actual illegality — they really cannot trade up until 2006. Instead, Trent Lott should yield the steering wheel to a worthier Republican, then find himself a cozy seat in the back of the Senate bus.