During the days immediately before and after Trent Lott’s ouster as Senate Majority Leader, conservatives — regardless of their position on whether he should go — worried that Republicans were going to spend the next two years trying to win the NAACP seal of approval. Liberal partisans hoped that the episode would tar the GOP with racism. Reporters suggested that the Republicans would suffer lasting harm.
None of that has happened. It might have had Lott stayed. As it is, the party has not retreated on racial issues. President Bush quickly sent a signal by renominating Charles Pickering: Lott’s fall didn’t mean that Republicans would give in every time Democrats came up with a trumped-up charge of racial insensitivity. Conservatives may have been disappointed that Bush did not take a firm stand against racial preferences in the University of Michigan cases, but Bush’s position was consistent with the rest of his career. He probably would have done the same thing had Lott never uttered a peep about Strom Thurmond. Democrats blasted the administration for opposing the Michigan program at all, trying to suggest that this stance was of a piece with Lott’s remarks. The charge didn’t seem to hurt Bush, and Democrats didn’t keep up a drumbeat on Lott.
The Lott controversy consumed the capital in December, but weeks have gone by without anyone’s thinking about it. The Lott affair has become a talking point for some Republicans. Thus, a Republican senator tells his colleagues to support some proposal of his — which he backs for totally different reasons — because it will help the party reach out to blacks, which is especially important because of what happened in December. The only thing that has really changed in the mainstream of the party is that its leaders are now meeting regularly with black conservatives to arrange for congressional offices to hire more of them. This may or may not be a great idea for improving the GOP’s share of the black vote, but it’s not really a big deal either way.
Can Lott’s remarks still be used to get black voters to come to the polls for the Democrats in 2004? Sure. But the Democrats would have found other ways to motivate them if Lott had said nothing. Swing voters are not going to be persuaded that Bush is hostile to minorities (or, for that matter, of anything else that seems to impugn Bush’s character). And to the extent that Lott’s fall raised the prominence of the Confederate-flag issue, that has been more of a problem for Democratic presidential candidates than it has been for Republicans.
Yes, the Lott affair did some temporary damage to the party. It took public and media attention away from the Democrats’ post-election meltdown and lurch to the left. And yes, GOP momentum has stalled. Why? The president’s Iraq policy has been frozen, and Republican congressmen are balking at the president’s dividend tax cut and worried about the politics of Medicare. Those are Bush’s problems. The fallout from Lott isn’t one.
It takes some chutzpah for Walter Dellinger, a veteran of the Clinton Justice Department, to complain that President Bush’s judicial nominees include “no one who has ever publicly endorsed a position that differs from the president’s view on an issue such as abortion.” Under these circumstances, Dellinger wrote for yesterday’s Washington Post op-ed page, “senators may well conclude that an ideological test is effectively being applied and respond in kind.” The administration in which Dellinger served had an explicit litmus test: Clinton promised in 1992 to appoint only judges who support Roe v. Wade.
Dellinger suggests the terms of a peace settlement to the judicial-confirmation wars: Bush should let Senate Democrats pick a few judicial nominees for him, in return for agreeing to confirm all of the nominees. Left unmentioned is that Bush tried a small-scale version of this gambit. He renominated two of Clinton’s judicial picks in an effort to be conciliatory. He also entered an arrangement with Democratic senators Feinstein and Boxer very much like the one Dellinger outlines. What has Bush gotten from the Democrats for these gestures? As far as I can tell, zip. All the renominations accomplished was to let Senate Democrats claim a higher confirmation rate than they could otherwise have done.
To accept the deal, Republicans would have to regard the judiciary as just a higher form of pork. In that case, it might make sense to say: Ok, your judges give you a policy victory here, and ours will give us one there. That is especially true if our concern is limited to the federal “judicial vacancy crisis” and the low confirmation rate that Republicans have been talking about. If, on the other hand, Republicans believe that their judicial picks are more committed to the proper enterprise of judging than the Democrats’ are, then there’s nothing in Dellinger’s deal for them.