Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, has told colleagues that he is planning to introduce a hate-crimes bill. Aides to Hatch are said to have advised him that such a bill would help to reconcile blacks and the Republican party in the aftermath of the Lott affair.
Hatch’s bill will differ from the one offered in the last Congress by Sen. Edward Kennedy in two important respects: It will not cover crimes motivated by bias based on gender or sexual orientation, and it will include the death penalty. (That second feature of the bill could put such pro-hate-crime law, anti-death-penalty legislators as Kennedy and Sen. Patrick Leahy in a bind.)
It says a lot about the contemporary “civil-rights movement” that federal hate-crimes legislation is at the top of its agenda. The bill proposes a double redundancy. To kill someone because of his race is already illegal everywhere; and in all but a handful of states, it already has the extra-special “hate-crime” designation. Perhaps it’s possible to get the annual number of such cases down from 19 to 10, but would that really solve any of America’s real racial problems?
Does the bill then make sense as a political gesture? If the idea is to show to all the world that the GOP is sensitive to blacks’ concerns, then opponents of the bill will have to be cast as insensitive. But that there will be many Republican opponents is guaranteed. It’s hard to see a Hatch-like bill passing the House. In 2000, President Bush expressed skepticism about hate-crimes laws. Liberals will seize on any Republican opposition as evidence of Republican racial backwardness, and Hatch will have given them the opportunity. The perception he seeks to dispel he will have instead reinforced.
Amendments to the bill will surely be offered expanding it to cover bias against women, gays, and transsexuals. Having bought the logic of hate-crimes laws, how exactly are Republicans to defend their exclusions of such crimes? Six Republicans have already gone all the way, signing on to Kennedy’s bill.
Those conservatives who spoke out against Trent Lott, meanwhile, may very well use Hatch’s bill as an opportunity to show that their criticisms of him were based on conservative principles, not liberal ones, and that they have no interest in a Republican party in thrall to the NAACP. (At this writing, the Bush administration is expected to come out against racial preferences in the Michigan case before the Supreme Court. If it doesn’t, however, conservatives will pound it with special zeal to set a tone for the post-Lott era.) It is not at all unlikely that Hatch would end up in the crossfire.
Armstrong Williams is a prominent conservative spokesman who called early and often for Lott’s ouster. On Monday, he was one of several black Republicans who met with Sen. Bill Frist and Marc Racicot to advise them on how Republicans can do better with black voters. On Tuesday, he was asked whether the Hatch bill would further that effort. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “That’s pandering to me. . . . We don’t believe that. . . . That’s not the answer. . . . I hope it’s defeated.”