Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott “has proven himself better suited to the back bench, where he is at least a generally reliable conservative vote. And there is an alternative in Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles . . . Conservatives should encourage Nickles to make the — admittedly risky — challenge against Lott.”
Thus wrote National Review in November 1998 after the GOP midterm disaster that year. We have long considered Lott a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader, and his controversial Strom Thurmond birthday remarks are a spectacular confirmation of that judgment. Is Lott a racist? We don’t think so. Are many of the attacks on him dishonest and opportunistic? Yes. But he has been a poor leader of Senate Republicans, and the latest gaffe will only further erode his standing and his ability to lead.
Lott stands to become the most unpopular congressional Republican since Newt Gingrich. That alone shouldn’t be disqualifying (and NR defended Gingrich from most of the charges hurled at him). Consider, however, the comparison: Gingrich became a reviled public figure who had won a historic victory in 1994 and possessed an active (sometimes overactive) political imagination. Lott will be a reviled public figure who is a sub-par Majority Leader, period.
NR tries to make its practical political judgments based on what is best for the conservative cause. The advantage of maintaining Lott as Majority Leader as opposed to any number of his colleagues — not just Nickles, but Jon Kyl, Mitch McConnell, Rick Santorum — is nil. He can only be a drag. Conservatives should be able to argue for constitutionalist judges, race-blind governmental policies, tighter immigration laws, welfare reform, and limited government generally without the dead weight of a Senate Majority Leader who has created a cloud over himself and his party through his own thoughtlessness.
It will no doubt be difficult for Lott’s colleagues, who are his friends, to force him out of his job. That’s why Lott should realize the damage he has done to his party, and step aside. Failing that, the White House, with a broader political perspective than that of the members of the Senate club, should urge him to relinquish his leadership position.
Minority leader Tom Daschle’s initial reaction (prior to his mauling by the Congressional Black Caucus) to Lott’s remarks was essentially sound — Lott misspoke. But Lott misspoke in a particular way, one freighted with symbolic significance. Many southern whites of a certain generation have a shameful past on civil-rights issues. This doesn’t necessarily make them reprehensible people, or mean that they are racists today. But, when they are public figures, it is reasonable to expect from them an honest reckoning with their past, and, of course, an awareness that a reckoning is necessary.
Many conservatives will be tempted to defend Lott because of the nature of some of the attacks on him. It’s an understandable impulse. But it is possible for someone simultaneously to suffer unfair attacks, handle himself and his predicament poorly, and be an underwhelming political figure. Trent Lott has managed a trifecta. For NR to rally to his side now would amount to defending him because he is being accused of racism.
We usually pride ourselves on being fair-weather critics of, and foul-weather friends to, conservative politicians. Lott is in for a long bout of foul weather. But we can’t be loyal to a Majority Leader who we didn’t support in the first place.