For several days now, I've been searching for a conservative to come to the defense of incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. I haven't found one. In fact, I constitute one of his biggest defenders simply because I don't think he should be dumped from the GOP leadership because he's allegedly racist. I think he should be dumped because he's politically stupid.
Let me bring you up to speed on the current brouhaha, in case you haven't been paying much attention. At retiring South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, Trent Lott said, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. 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."
Now, people too young to remember or too uninterested to know might think this is just a nice thing to say to a guy who ran for president over 50 years ago, when Lott was 7 years old by the way. And, to be fair to Lott, that is almost certainly what he intended -- to be nice to an old warhorse of the Senate.
The problem is that Strom Thurmond's "Dixiecrat" 1948 presidential candidacy was based pretty much entirely on opposing any push for civil rights for black Americans. We're not even talking about opposing, say, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which would be hard enough to defend. We're talking 1948. Strom Thurmond didn't just oppose voting rights for blacks -- he opposed anti-lynching laws.
Here's what the 1948 sample ballot put out by the Mississippi Democratic Party had to say about the race between Thurmond and Truman: "A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman's so-called civil rights program in the next Congress. This means the vicious . anti-poll tax, anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."
Trent Lott boasted about his state supporting this junk. After all, it's not like Thurmond's platform was full of planks about tax cuts or environmental protection.
Lott's "defenders" say Lott was simply trying to make ol' Strom -- who has apologized for his past positions -- feel good on his 100th birthday. And there's no doubt in my mind that this was Lott's primary, if not sole, motivation. Indeed, I bet Lott's (tardy) apology is sincere. In a statement issued Monday night, Lott said, "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Republicans and conservatives have been treading uphill for years trying to prove that we're not racist. And Lott tripped us all, costing us hard-earned ground.
Lott's liberal critics rightly claim that this is hardly a one-time gaffe. For example, Lott has a long record of being too close to the Council of Concerned Citizens, a white supremacist group based in Mississippi. Lott has claimed that, even though he wrote a column for their newsletter, he never really knew what the CCC was up to. He claimed that liberals were unfairly trying to smear him with guilt by association.
And that's precisely why I can't forgive the guy. One has only two choices here: Either, you take Lott at his word or you don't. If you don't believe him, then, well, he's a racist and a foolish one for being so obvious about it. But if you take him at his word, that he made a mistake, that's even worse. I mean, he's been smeared with the racist label enough times to have learned his lesson, especially considering the fact he's supposed to lead the Republican Party.
Regardless, Trent Lott only does two things well, freeze-dry his hair and say stupid things. He mishandled impeachment, mishandled the 1998 elections, mishandled power-sharing with the Democrats after the 2000 election and mishandled Jim Jeffords straight into the Democratic Party.
One reason so many conservatives are denouncing Lott is that he's never given conservatives much reason to trust him or care about him. He's a deal-cutter who seems to stand for nothing except massive amounts of pork to his home state and, occasionally, sticking up for Jim Crow.
Already, many conservatives assume that Tom Daschle's muted support for Lott was paid for with some political concession. If incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (or other Southerners like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey et al) made a similar gaffe, conservatives would have bled in defense of the guy -- not only because he isn't racist, but because Delay stands for more than process and pork. But while DeLay stands for principle, Lott stands for little. And what he does stand for, we don't need.