WASHINGTON--The Lott fiasco has had a clarifying effect on contemporary conservatism. Its three major strains--paleo, traditional and neo--have been thrown into rather sharp relief.
The paleoconservatives, the lean mean unreconstructed circa-1964 Goldwaterites, are for Lott. ``One of the ugliest mob lynchings I've seen in my life in Washington,'' said Pat Buchanan with characteristic pugnacity and bad taste. Columnist Robert Novak cannot see what the whole fuss is about, other than a bid by the Congressional Black Caucus and the media to dictate to Republican wusses who their leadership should be.
Then there are the traditional conservatives, whose major interests are low taxes, less government and general social quiescence. They came out against Lott, some rather strongly, for reasons of good government and party politics.
``We have long considered Lott a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader,'' declared the editors of National Review, ``and his controversial Strom Thurmond birthday remarks are a spectacular confirmation of that judgment.'' Therefore, this is a great opportunity to get rid of a guy who should have been deposed for other--non-ideological, non-racial--reasons long ago.
Other traditional conservatives are less concerned with inside baseball and individual performance than with the positioning of the Republican Party in the American political landscape. The Lott issue revived the charge of Republican racism and thus jeopardized the party's drive for majority status. It not only forfeits any potential black support. It fatally alienates moderates who correctly view decency on race as a proxy for political decency in general. Lott must go, therefore, because he stands in the way of consolidating a Republican majority.
These arguments are fine. They are also inadequate. Even if none of these claims were true--even if Lott were not a clumsy and ineffective leader, even if this did not affect Republican chances for winning future elections--Lott would have to go. It is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of principle.
The principle is colorblindness, the bedrock idea enshrined in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that guides the thinking of the third strain of conservatism, neoconservatism. Neocons have been the most passionate about the Lott affair and most disturbed by its meaning.
Why? Because many neoconservatives are former liberals. They supported civil rights when it meant equality between the races, and they turned against the civil rights establishment when it began insisting that some races should be more equal than others. Neoconservatives oppose affirmative action on grounds of colorblindness and in defense of the original vision of the civil rights movement: judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Having thus staked their ground for decades on colorblindness and a reverence for the civil rights movement as originally defined, neoconservatives were particularly appalled by Lott's endorsement of its antithesis, Thurmond segregationism. Not to denounce it--on grounds not of politics but of principle--would be to lose all moral standing on matters of race.
Lott has subsequently provided even more evidence of his moral unfitness for leadership. In desperation to save himself, the clueless Lott has now groveled his way to supporting affirmative action. Two weeks ago he was pining for 1948 segregation; now, on BET, he embraces 2002 racial preferences--without even a pit stop at 1964 colorblindness! It's an amazing trajectory, and a disgraceful one. It can only happen to a man without a principled bone in his body on the issue of race.
In his multiple confessions, Lott has practically pledged himself to enacting the modern liberal agenda of racial preferences. It is an ironic recapitulation of what happened 40 years ago. Out of shame and atonement for the racist past, liberals abandoned racial blindness and became apologists for racial preferences. Lott's newfound shame and atonement are as phony as it gets, but the result is the same: He, too, has gone from one kind of racialism to another. He set the indoor record, however, by doing it in a week.
A man who has no use--let alone no feel--for colorblindness has no business being a leader of the conservative party. True, if Lott is ousted, he might resign from the Senate and allow his seat to go Democratic, thus jeopardizing Republican control of the Senate and undoing the great Republican electoral triumph of 2002.
So be it. There is a principle at stake here. Better to lose the Senate than to lose your soul. New elections come around every two years. Souls are scarcer.