The Self Made Pundit
Friday, December 20, 2002
LOTT’S LEGACY: Whatever else Trent Lott has proved himself to be, he has demonstrated prowess as a vote counter in his three decades in Congress. Lott put that skill to use this morning and resigned as Senate majority leader after counting the horses’ heads in his bed.
While Lott’s resignation as majority leader may spare Bush and fellow Republicans some embarrassment, it may have come too late to put all the worms back in the can that Lott opened with his tribute to Storm Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign.
If Lott had resigned his leadership post a week ago – or even if he had not kept reviving the story with near-daily clumsy apologies – L’affaire Lott might have been quickly dropped by the news media as just another politician done in by a gaffe. By hanging on and staying in the public eye with his pathetic serial apologies, Lott has practically forced commentators to look for some larger context in which to place his transgressions.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, Lott’s statements retroactively endorsing a segregationist campaign for president – as well as his long history of opposing civil rights legislation – are reflective of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy. For more than three decades, Republican candidates have won the votes of Southern whites by indicating that they would be far less sympathetic to the grievances of African Americans than the Democrats have been. Starting in 1968, when Strom Thurmond campaigned for Richard Nixon, the Southern Strategy has enabled Republican presidential candidates to rely on large blocs of electoral votes from the South.
Since hardcore racists are among the voters attracted by such Republican appeals, the Republican Party has always been skittish about discussing the Southern Strategy in the rest of the country. To a large extent the news media have obliged the Republicans on this point and have rarely focused on the Southern Strategy.
Lott, however, has performed an unintentional service to his country – and the Democrats – by keeping the story of his political demise alive and fresh. With each bumbling apology, Lott would revive the story and force commentators to look for new angles and eventually they focused on the Southern Strategy. The topic of the Republicans’ cynical and crass manipulation of white racial attitudes to achieve electoral success in the South has become a mainstream news topic. For a few examples, see what a leading newspaper, the last elected president and an insightful blogger have said about the Republicans’ Southern Strategy.
It would be a fitting tribute to Lott if his legacy is a continued sensitivity by the news media to the Republicans’ Southern Strategy. Perhaps, the major news media will turn the spotlight on the Southern Strategy the next time Republicans try to suppress black voter turnout – as they did recently in the Louisiana Senate race – or make veiled references to the Democrats as the party of criminal or unpopular blacks – as Bush the elder did in 1988 and Senator Frist (a leading contender to replace Lott as majority leader) did in 1994.
If a heightened awareness of the Republicans’ Southern Strategy is Lott’s legacy, the Democrats may want to give Lott the tribute he deserves. The next time Republicans try to profit from white voters’ racial resentments or suppress black voter turnout, Democrats might want to state the following:
When Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon and Trent Lott ran for office, we voted against them. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.
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.
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
LOTTS O’ LIES: Trent Lott’s chances of surviving his retroactive endorsement of Storm Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat race for president would be better if Lott were only a bigot and a liar. Unfortunately for Lott, he is also a clumsy liar.
As Lott engages in serial apologizing in an effort to keep his post as Senate Majority Leader, he is tripping over his own lies.
On Larry King’s show last Wednesday, Lott tried to excuse his comments expressing support for Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president by pleading ignorance about what Thurmond stood for a half century ago. After apologizing for comments at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, Lott added:
Having said that, you know, I see – I was 7-years-old when, you know, Strom first ran for president. I don't really remember anything about the campaign.
Lott’s plea of ignorance was laughable. Lott is a 61-year-old senator from Mississippi – a state at the heart of the civil rights struggles of past decades – who has served with Thurmond in Congress for three decades. If Lott had been a thirtysomething political neophyte, his plea of ignorance might have been plausible. Coming from him, the plea was ludicrous.
Indeed, in his interview with BET’s Ed Gordon last night, Lott effectively admitted that his earlier plea of ignorance about Thurmond’s segregationist background was a lie:
GORDON: But you also saw a senator that personified for years segregation.
LOTT: Yes, but let me tell you...
GORDON: Did you not, though?
LOTT: I did. I did.
GORDON: And you knew and understood what he stood for?
LOTT: I – absolutely I did.
Later in the interview, Lott tried once again to fall back on his claimed ignorance to excuse his record in voting against the Martin Luther King Holiday in 1983. Lott’s whopper that he did not knot know what Martin Luther King represented was so ridiculous that Lott quickly began back pedaling when Gordon prodded him:
GORDON: Let's talk about the King holiday.
LOTT: I want to talk about the King holiday. I want to go back to that.
I'm not sure we in America, certainly not white America and the people in the South, fully understood who this man was; the impact he was having on the fabric of this country.
GORDON: But you certainly understood it by the time that vote came up, Senator.
LOTT: Well, but...
GORDON: You knew who Dr. King was at that point.
LOTT: I did, but I've learned a lot more since then.
Having chosen mendacity and ignorance for his sword and his shield as he fights for his political life, Lott also tried the lie that he is in favor of affirmative action. Lott conveniently ignored his 1998 vote to eliminate affirmative action for federal construction contracts. When Gordon probed this untruth, however, Lott fell back on feigning ignorance of what affirmative action really means.
GORDON: What about affirmative action?
LOTT: I'm for that. I think you should reach out to people ...
GORDON: Across the board?
LOTT: Absolutely, across the board. That's why I'm so proud of my own alma mater now, University of Mississippi, that obviously had a difficult time in the 60s and 70s, now led by an outstanding chancellor, Robert Khayat, that has gotten rid of the Confederate flag, that has now has an institute of reconciliation, that has a leadership...
GORDON: Yet your votes in the past have not suggested that you are for affirmative action.
LOTT: I am for affirmative action. And I practice it. I have had African-Americans on my staff, and other minorities, but particularly African-Americans, since the mid-1970s.
I have had a particular program ...
GORDON: But to have one on one's staff--you understand the difference, though, to have a black on your staff and to push legislation that would help African-Americans, minorities across the board, are completely different.
LOTT: You know, again, you can get into arguments about timetables and quotas.
Lott has apparently reached the point that he is willing to say anything – no matter how outrageous or untrue – to keep his job as Senate Majority Leader. While Lott might have been able to survive if he had merely been a bigot and a liar, I suspect his being a clumsy liar is one liability too many even for his Republican colleagues.
Monday, December 16, 2002
NO GORE IN ‘04: The republic is a little poorer today with Al Gore’s announcement that he will not run for president in 2004.
Gore is one of the most thoughtful politicians around today. If he had not been savaged by numerous misleading treatments in the news media in 2000 – fueled largely by Republican and right-wing spinmeisters – he would undoubtedly be president today. For that matter, if five members of the Supreme Court had not disgraced themselves with the most partisan decision in Supreme Court history, he would probably be president.
Recently, Gore has been a forceful critic of the Bush administration’s slapdash policies, which appear coherent only when they forthrightly cater to corporate interests. Unlike many other Democrats, Gore has not been afraid to criticize a foreign policy that has simplemindedly chosen a forceful sounding bellicosity towards Iraq over a more considered approach of how best to deal with terrorism. He has also not been afraid to attack disastrous economic policies that favor the rich.
Despite sounding like a presidential candidate – and a great one at that – Gore has decided that another spokesman might serve the Democrats better in 2004:
Well, I personally have the energy and the drive and the ambition to make another campaign. But I don't think it's the right thing for me to do. I think that a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush would inevitably involve a focus on the past that would, in some measure, distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about.
The last campaign was an extremely difficult one. And while I have the energy and drive to go out there and do it again, I think that there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party who felt exhausted by that, who felt like, O.K., I don't want to go through that again. And I'm, frankly, sensitive to that feeling.
Gore’s decision must have been a difficult one to make. I certainly find it a difficult decision to accept.
Given Gore’s recent outspokenness, I think he would have been an effective candidate against a fundamentally dishonest administration, which is adopting domestic policies even more ill-advised than the first Bush administration’s. For just the latest outrage, read today’s Washington Post article on the Bush administration’s plans to shift taxes from the rich to the poor. (Link via Counterspin Central.) Gore, who has the instincts of a populist – in the best sense of the term (see Trent Lott for the worst sense) – would have been one of the best spokesman for the Democrats in 2004 in denouncing Bush’s class guerrilla warfare on behalf of the rich.
In recent weeks Al Gore has shown what a spirited Democrat can do as he has forcefully and effectively blasted the Bush administration. I hope other Democrats that what to be president are not shy in following in his footsteps.