WASHINGTON -- Sen. Trent Lott, on the telephone from Pascagoula, Miss., reaching out to colleagues, asked one of the Senate's Republican wise men last Wednesday what he could do to save his majority leadership. Only one thing, he was told: Get George W. Bush to publicly endorse you. That was impossible, because the president had made a decision with far-ranging consequences.
Since Lott's Strom Thurmond statement, erosion of support among Republican senators was fed by their perception that the White House wanted a change. President Bush had ordered aides to say nothing for or against Lott. That impacted on one fellow Deep South senator who publicly declared loyalty to Lott but told me "the president cut out the legs from under Trent." This senator privately declared Lott dead on Thursday, 24 hours before he quit.
As principal author of Lott's demise, Bush must now face its consequences: limiting his freedom in policy touching on race. He has to decide whether to approve Solicitor General Theodore Olson's proposal for U.S. intervention against the University of Michigan in the racial quota case before the Supreme Court. He has to decide whether to renominate U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering, a friend and Mississippi Republican ally of Lott's, for the appellate bench. To go with Olson and Pickering would raise accusations of "racism."
The Lott affair quickly burned off the remaining Republican glow from mid-term election victories, but its impact transcends that. Democratic operatives dragged out the old chestnut of candidate Bush's 2000 visit to Bob Jones University, with spokesman Ari Fleischer harangued about it at Friday's White House briefing. The theme is that the GOP's Southern base, the bedrock of its national election victories, is an illegitimate legacy from racist Dixiecrats.
Once panicky conservatives had turned against Lott, the Left muffled its personal criticism of the senator. Bill Clinton, in New York last Wednesday while attending an event for the European Travel Commission, signaled what was afoot. "From top to bottom," he said, Republicans support what Lott supports. "They've tried to suppress black voting," said the former president, "they've run on the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina . . . So, I don't see what they're jumping on Trent Lott about."
Prior to Lott's fall, the left-wing People For the American Way released a study showing that his voting record on racially charged issues was identical to possible successors -- including the supposedly more moderate Sen. Bill Frist. Indeed, the American Conservative Union rates the two as nearly identically conservative in lifetime voting records: Lott 93 percent, Frist 88 percent.
People For the American Way equates George W. Bush's record with Lott's, asserting: "It was correct for President Bush to criticize Lott's praise for Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. But those words will ring hollow if the Administration and its Congressional allies continue to promote policies that undermine the nation's ability to make good on the American promise of equality and opportunity for all." Thus, in failing to defend Lott, the president opened himself to remorseless attack.
Frist as the probable new majority leader may not defend well against this assault. The Tennessee heart surgeon is much smoother than professional politician Lott, and unlikely to speculate publicly about a 54-year-old presidential campaign. However, conservative foes of cloning legislation were exasperated by Frist's equivocations as leader on this issue and fear the worst in how this relatively inexperienced senator will function as majority leader.
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, on the telephone to colleagues late Friday in a tardy and futile campaign for majority leader, described himself as candidate of the Senate and Frist as candidate of the White House. Indeed, as the successful Senate Republican campaign chairman in 2002, Frist functioned like a member of the White House staff.
If the president and the new majority leader are jointly sensitized by attacks from the Left, the cost of Lott's 17 seconds of joshing a centenarian may run high indeed. Republicans cannot be the nation's majority party today without the solid South, and Democrats want to build on the Lott fiasco to undermine that base. Which way the White House goes on the University of Michigan court case and the Pickering nomination will provide two early clues of the Lott affair's impact.