In a perfect world, Senators James Jeffords and Trent Lott would be on a one-way flight to Papua New Guinea right now, each with a copy of the Donner Party Cook Book duct-taped to his chest.
Alas, Washington is as far from perfect as Bismarck Arch is from Burlington, Vt. Nonetheless, Republican and conservative activists are still enraged over “Benedict Jeffords’s” split from the GOP.
With Jeffords unable to face a primary opponent until 2006, true believers can do little more than hope that Jeffords suffers when he looks in the mirror and ponders the pain he has inflicted on his once fellow Republicans. President Bush’s agenda now faces steeper odds than ever. Jeffords’s ex-GOP colleagues now will ride shotgun rather than in the drivers’ seats of the Senate’s committees. With any luck, all of this hurts Jeffords more than it hurts the GOP.
While Jeffords deserves to have hot scorn poured on him from eight miles high, he also merits a tiny drop of grudging respect for holding the long end of this stick. As he becomes a Democratic hero and takes control of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, his backstage maneuvers clearly have worked to his personal, political benefit. Crafty is as crafty does.
Gripping the short end of this stick is — who else? — Trent Lott. The difference between Jeffords and Lott parallels the distinction between a schlemiel and a schlamozzle. In Yiddish, a schlemiel is one who spills a bowl of soup on another, while a schlamozzle is the person on whom the soup is spilled.
As if drenched in split-pea soup, Lott appeared at a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday with other members of the GOP leadership to demonstrate “Republican unity.” How dare he? How dare other Republicans let him?
Trent Lott is more than just a fool. Far worse, he is someone whose cowardice and negligence have hindered the causes of freedom and prosperity. He is the weakest link.
Item one on a Senate majority leader’s job description is to maintain and, if possible, increase his party’s majority. By this simple, objective measure, Trent Lott has not done his job. That’s too generous. He has failed in his most basic duty — utterly, categorically, and miserably.
At the start of the 105th Congress in 1997, Lott had 55 Republicans under his wing. As of January, that number had fallen to a 50-50 standoff with Democrats. Only Vice President Dick Cheney’s tie-breaking vote put the GOP in charge. Lott had gone from Senate Majority Leader, in essence, to Senate Stalemate Leader.
It was Lott’s job, not President Bush’s or even that of the White House Congressional Liaison’s Office, to keep Jeffords’s rifle — left-tilting though it was — in the GOP’s big tent aiming out rather than outside aiming in. And by whatever means necessary — threats, intimidation, charm, a morning Bloody Mary, or an evening back rub — Lott’s responsibility was to prevent last week’s nightmare from becoming reality.
Jeffords’s defection apparently came with plenty of foreshadowing. “There had been rumblings, but I think no one took them seriously,” Bush advisor Karen Hughes told ABC’s Good Morning America. The White House apparently dismissed warnings from Sen. Olympia Snowe (R., Me.) that her friend, Jeffords, was about to jump ship. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card reportedly received and disregarded two such calls from Snowe on May 21 and 22. “I wish I had served the president better,” Card later said.
Unbelievable. Whether or not Hughes and Card “got it” on Jeffords, Lott should have leapt off his duff last week, commandeered the closest vehicle and met with President Bush at the Oval Office on this domestic matter of the highest urgency.
“Mr. President,” he should have said, “your entire bandwagon is about to flip into a ditch unless we do something to keep Jim Jeffords on the farm.”
Properly alerted by Lott, Bush could have seen Jeffords right away. He could have asked Jeffords to head a commission to find ways for the private sector, faith-based groups, local and state governments and — perhaps — Uncle Sam to address special education, one of Jeffords’s pet issues. Would conservatives and libertarians applaud any new federal spending on special-ed? Appropriately, no. But mollifying Jeffords — or at least keeping him busy for six months — would have been a small price to pay compared to the holy Hell that the Daschle Democrats will unleash as of June 5. This surely will include a new special-education program as a welcome gift to Jeffords for handing Democrats the Senate.
If Jeffords felt aggrieved by Bush and the White House, Lott could have played “good cop” to the “bad cops” on Pennsylvania Avenue. He publicly could have chided the White House for not treating Jeffords with appropriate senatorial deference, etc., etc. Yes, this would have rewarded Jeffords’s apostasy on taxes and so much more. It even might have emboldened Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, and the Senate’s other Republican weak sisters. Though undesirable, that would have been preferable to the body blow that Jeffords finally delivered and Lott ultimately let pass.
Of course, the Jeffords debacle is no isolated incident. It is just the latest bead in an interminable string of gaffes, missteps, and missed opportunities that Lott wears around his neck. Consider:
‐Trent Lott’s negotiating skills make Neville Chamberlain look like Jimmy Hoffa. Exhibit A is the power-sharing deal Lott arranged with Tom Daschle. Were it binding throughout the entire 107th Congress, even in the event of a Democratic majority, this agreement might be worthy. Instead, like a driver abandoning a jalopy that has wheezed its last breath, Daschle leapt from Lott’s power-sharing Edsel the moment Jeffords bolted the GOP.
Lott’s vaunted compact undermined GOP interests from day one. He should have insisted that Republicans control a majority of each Senate committee’s seats. If Democrats resisted, Lott should have had the full Senate vote on that organizing principle. Dick Cheney could have split a tie and made that idea stick. Instead, committees were split right down the middle, allowing Democrats to drag their feet on confirmations, hack away at President Bush’s tax cut, and otherwise desecrate the bipartisan altar at which Bush and Lott so often pray.
If Republicans maintained a majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, for instance, Bush could have named several dozen judges to the federal bench over the last four months. On party-line votes, the committee could have green-lighted eminent candidates such as Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.) who, by now, would have been fitted for black robes. Instead, partisan Democrats such as Vermont’s Patrick Leahy turned the committee into a giant tank trap for conservatives. Now, it’s too late. As its chairman, Leahy will become the Judiciary Committee’s Dr. No. Seeing a potential nomination as futile, Rep. Christopher Cox (R., Calif.) on Friday asked the White House to stop considering him for a seat on the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. This is an even bigger loss for America than it is for Chris Cox.
‐Lott might not be in this sorry position had he instructed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) to give sufficient National Republican Senatorial Committee funds to then-Rep. Linda Smith’s 1998 bid to defeat Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.). McConnell let Smith’s campaign sputter because she supported campaign-finance reform. Nice work! Now, in Patty Murray, the Senate has someone who backs campaign spending limits and votes for Daschle as majority leader. This, too, happened on Lott’s watch. Had Lott slapped some sense into McConnell, Smith’s vote would be the one on which GOP control of that chamber would hinge today.
‐Trent Lott sold out House Republicans during President Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial. “You’re not going to dump this garbage on us,” Lott told GOP impeachment managers, House Judiciary investigative counsel David Schippers recalls. No live witnesses. No detailed inquiry. No justice. No peace of mind.
‐Trent Lott is more porcine than Babe the Pig when it comes to pork-barrel spending. He is notorious for having steered $835 million into a helicopter assault ship the Pentagon doesn’t want. It is being built in Pascagoula, Miss., within sight of his front porch. In 1999, Lott also licked his chops over a pork-laden “emergency spending” bill. “I said it sucks, but let’s pass it anyway,” he declared.
‐Trent Lott agreed in March 2000 to allow liberal Clinton nominees Marsha Berzon and Richard Paez onto the already left-leaning Ninth Circuit for life in exchange for Democratic cooperation on allowing his friend — Tupelo, Miss. mayor Glenn McCullogh — onto the board of the outdated Tennessee Valley Authority.
‐Trent Lott swapped Democratic approval of campaign-finance reform opponent Bradley Smith’s six-year term on the Federal Election Commission for Senate confirmation of 16 Clinton-appointed judges to federal courts for life.
‐Lott, to his credit, recently called for decreasing the capital-gains tax. So what happened last week when New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg sponsored an amendment to cut capital-gains levies from 20 percent to 15 percent? The measure failed 47 to 51. Amazingly eight Republicans voted against reducing the capital-gains tax. They were: Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, New Mexico’s Pete Domenici, Ohio’s Mike DeWine, Iowa’s Charles Grassley, Arizona’s John McCain, Maine’s Olympia Snowe, Ohio’s George Voinovich and — surprise, surprise — Vermont’s James Jeffords.
Lott allowed eight members of the reputed tax-cutting party to oppose capital-gains tax cuts, even as America dances on the brink of recession. What use is he? How will he rally Republicans on issues more controversial than capital-gains tax relief, a cause that won even Bill Clinton’s signature in 1997?
Singing Senator Trent Lott wouldn’t know a spine if it stood up on the Senate floor and broke into Twist and Shout. Institutional hygiene demands that Lott, finally, be ousted and replaced with someone with the toughness and principle required to hold the GOP caucus together, advance its cause and expand its numbers. Oklahoma’s Don Nickles is the most ideologically sound prospect, though he doesn’t quite seem made of steel. Tennessee’s Fred Thompson and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel are both telegenic free-marketeers who seem capable, if necessary, of dining on nine-inch nails. Columnist Robert Novak describes Idaho’s Larry Craig as a solid conservative who gets along well with Republican wets. In the real world, that ain’t bad.
Time and time again, Trent Lott either has left the ball on the field, fumbled it, or simply handed it, ribbon-wrapped, to Democrats. The Jeffords fiasco must be his last error. The Senate Republican caucus should strike an immediate blow for the Bush agenda, the future of free-market ideas, and the timeless concept of accountability, by demoting Trent Lott to junior Senator from the state of Mississippi.