Trent Lott has only himself to blame for his fall. As all the world knows, he made a remark, at a party for Strom Thurmond’s centenary, retrospectively endorsing Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign of 1948. That was a foolish remark if thoughtless, and a disgraceful one if considered. Conservatives and others criticized him for it. Most of them sought a prompt and plausible clarification that he, for one reason or another, was unable to provide. That failure on his part reflected badly on both his political and his moral judgment, and it cost him his job as majority leader.
An unfortunate side effect of Lott’s gaffe has been a revival of liberalism’s claim to moral superiority. Liberals would like to set themselves up as the arbiters of racial morality, deciding which conservatives are respectable or otherwise on the basis of their agreement with liberal shibboleths on race. Already there have been attempts to smear Lott’s successor, Bill Frist, and such other conservative politicians as Sen. Jeff Sessions. But conservatives need no moral instruction on the evil of fomenting racial division from the political allies of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — from people who accuse President Bush of savoring hate crimes, from politicians who make false charges that Republicans are trying to keep blacks from being able to vote.
Both Clintons went before the cameras to say that the Republicans were upset with Lott only for spilling the beans about their racism. The NAACP last year gave a grade of F to every Republican senator, even Lincoln Chafee. Those who would prefer to believe that all the Republicans are racist will draw that conclusion. But others will reason that the civil-rights group is liberal, and an adjunct of the Democratic party. Most people understand that disagreement with Kweisi Mfume is not evidence of racism, and Republicans who are falsely charged with it for taking a conservative position need only respond that they will not capitulate to liberal attempts to stifle debate. The Republican party and the conservative cause may have suffered some damage because of Lott’s gaffe, but that damage will be lasting only if Republicans act as though they are guilty of the Clintons’ charges.
America’s civil-rights establishment is looking more and more irrelevant by the day. A person who paid attention only to it over the last few years would have thought that the most pressing problems confronting black Americans were: the low salaries of superstar professors at Ivy League universities; the fact that no one on the regular cast of Friends is black; the fact that some crimes that are already punished are not additionally punished as “hate crimes”; the remaining traces of the Confederate flag in southern states; and the possibility that the character of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars movies might reinforce prejudices against people from the Caribbean. On some of these issues, the civil-rights groups may be correct; we are inclined to agree that the Confederate flag ought to go. But maybe 99 percent of the attention that has been given to the flag would be better devoted to getting black kids out of lousy schools.
Among the silly ideas that have been proposed in the weeks since Lott’s gaffe is a bipartisan commission on racial reconciliation, and we’re sorry to see that Sen. Sam Brownback, who is usually sensible, has fallen for it. The nation’s biggest “racial problem” is not a matter of attitudes. It is the disproportionate involvement of black Americans in the tangle of pathologies — from crime to illegitimacy — that define the underclass, and secondly the reaction to it by other Americans. Perhaps public-policy and social reforms can address those problems, but no amount of “dialogue” will solve them.
Nor will Republicans solve their political problems by spending taxpayer money on the cities, supporting racial preferences, or even promoting school choice. The pattern of the last few election cycles is clear. When Republicans have failed to contest black votes, Democrats have been free to scare them to the polls. The few times Republicans have counter-punched — by, for example, bothering to run anti-Democratic ads in media that black voters patronize — they have disrupted the Democrats’ turnout machine. If Republicans want to win votes among blacks, they should start campaigning among them. They need to fight Democrats for black voters as they do for other voters. But they cannot do so if they spend the next two years apologizing for Trent Lott.