The Self Made Pundit
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
BUSH’S SOUTHERN STRATEGY OF SILENCE: While the Bush administration is renown for speaking with one mind on all things political (and for this administration all things are political), when it comes to the fate of Trent Lott, the White House is certainly having trouble expressing that mind.
The reason for the Bush administration’s recent muddled statements on Lott appears to be that the White House would prefer that voters not know that what is on its mind is preservation of the Republican Party’s southern strategy. While the White House’s statements about Lott have been ambiguous, the White House has expressed no ambivalence toward the southern strategy, which Republican presidential candidates have used since the 1960's to lock up southern electoral votes with campaigns designed to appeal to white voters opposed to civil rights legislation.
The White House’s enigmatic approach began last Thursday when Bush criticized Lott for his statement at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party lamenting that Thurmond did not win his 1948 third-party campaign for president on a virulently segregationist platform. The White House immediately muddied that message by having presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer state “emphatically and on the record, the president doesn't think Trent Lott needs to resign.”
Since Thursday, the White House has strived to make its intentions towards Lott even less clear. Reporters trying to discern Bush’s position on whether Republican Senators should vote to replace Lott as Senate Majority Leader in a caucus vote on Jan. 6 received mixed messages yesterday.
In public, the White House was reaffirming Bush’s view that Lott did not need to resign as Senate Majority Leader:
The White House, which rebuked Lott last week, repeated that Bush does not believe that Lott, elected to become majority leader last month, should step aside. But it refused to say if the president wants Lott to be majority leader.
In private, however, White House sources were singing a different tune:
A ... Republican close to the White House said Bush's advisers were second-guessing a decision last week to give Lott a chance to survive. Despite strong criticism of Lott's remarks by Bush, spokesman Ari Fleischer was instructed to say the Mississippian should not resign.
In fact, some Republican sources were indicating that Bush and his advisers would prefer for Lott simply to vanish from the face of the earth:
In contrast to Monday, when White House officials went to great lengths to portray themselves as leaving Mr. Lott's fate to his Senate colleagues, today they appeared to be more overtly involved.
Republicans said that Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, was engaged in phone calls with party members about Mr. Lott today and was receiving advice about what the White House should do.
Mr. Rove was careful, Republicans said, not to push a point of view or otherwise be seen as trying to manipulate the outcome of Senate affairs.
Mr. Rove declined to comment on Mr. Lott's remarks. But privately, a Republican close to President Bush said that Mr. Lott's refusal to step aside was prolonging the inevitable.
Although the Bush administration apparently views Lott as a liability that needs to be thrown from the train, they do not want their fingerprints on the body. And why does the Bush administration prefer the present chaotic situation to playing any discernible role in replacing Lott? The most likely answer is that Bush and his advisers want to discard only Lott – not the southern strategy:
Bush's political advisers say they are highly disappointed with Lott's explanations, but say they had been ordered by the president not to take any overt or covert action against the Mississippi Republican.
The White House faces a dilemma: Lott is hurting both Bush and his party, but any effort to take down Lott will hurt Bush with his Southern base, say senior Republicans close to the White House. Bush also feels some loyalty toward Lott, White House officials said.
Thus, the president's political team is forced into what one White House official called a “strategy of silence,” hoping events themselves lead to Lott's removal or – much less likely – somehow end the controversy.
It is richly ironic that Bush, after slapping Lott’s wrist for his retroactive endorsement of Strom Thurmond, is settling on a southern strategy of silence.
The original southern strategy was used by Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond in the presidential race of 1968 to convince unreconstructed white voters that Nixon would not advance the cause of civil rights for black Americans. With a nudge and a wink, Nixon and Thurmond telegraphed to racists that Nixon’s silence on civil rights issues should be interpreted as signaling that a Republican White House would be more to their liking than a Democratic administration.
Bush’s southern strategy of silence is true to the spirit of Nixon’s and Thurmond’s original southern strategy. Rather than take a moral stand and actively seek Lott’s removal as Senate Majority Leader, Bush is remaining silent so as not to antagonize white southern voters that see nothing wrong in Lott’s embrace of Thurmond’s segregationist past.
Regardless of what happens to the beleaguered Lott, perhaps he can take comfort in the knowledge that even though Thurmond’s segregationist platform of 1948 was rejected by the voters, Thurmond’s southern strategy of 1968 has been adopted by Bush.