Too many people have asked the wrong question about Trent Lott and have come up with the wrong answer. The real question is not so much about Senator Lott's past statements but about the Republican Party's future.
What will Trent Lott's continuance as majority leader mean to his party's future in the political battles ahead, including the elections of 2004? In a closely divided country, anything can tip the scales.
A real racist would probably have had better sense than to make the remarks that got Trent Lott in hot water. Those who are convinced that Senator Lott is a racist should consider the fact that he has over the years said many ill-considered and even reckless things on many subjects besides race.
That doesn't reduce his responsibility. It adds to the political liability that the man has become in his role as majority leader in the Senate. The fact that some liberal Senate Democrats said from the outset that they did not believe Trent Lott to be a racist may be a measure of how much of a continuing liability they expect him to be for the Republicans -- and therefore how useful he will be as a target in future political battles in the Senate and at the polls in 2004.
Some defenders of Senator Lott were angry at the double standards being applied in the media and elsewhere. Race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were taken seriously in the media when they attacked Senator Lott morally, despite Jackson's own record of anti-Semitic remarks and the hoax against white public officials that put Al Sharpton on the map.
All that is true -- and important in other contexts -- but irrelevant to the crucial issue of whether Trent Lott should have remained the majority leader of the Senate Republicans. Stopping black racists from accusing others of racism was not one of the options available to Republicans. Nor was making the media honest an option on the table, desirable as that might be.
The actual choice facing Republicans is whether they want Trent Lott to be out front as the face of their party when they confront future political battles over judicial nominees, national security and the rest of the Bush administration agenda.
Any judge who has ever ruled against any claim -- however outrageous -- by any organization that calls itself a civil rights group is likely to be hit with charges of "racism" when he or she is nominated for an appellate court appointment and is up for confirmation in the Senate. Who is going to go on nationwide television and reassure the public that the nominee is not a racist? Trent Lott?
Anything in national security policy that can be construed as "racial profiling" of people from the Middle East will be construed that way by critics. When the Republican leadership is called upon to defend the policy, will Senator Lott's presence among that leadership help the credibility of their defense?
One of the great opportunities that Republicans have of making inroads into the Democrats' virtual monopoly of minority votes in the years ahead is by offering vouchers as a way to rescue minority children from failing schools. But any attempt to claim the moral high ground on this issue can be dismissed with sneering remarks about the Republican majority leader.
No wonder some Democrats wanted Trent Lott to stay front and center. He can be a living red herring. Long after the current furor has died down, this episode can be resurrected for political encores.
Meanwhile, Republicans will have to tiptoe around racial issues and even kowtow to the likes of Al Sharpton. This can only disgust and demoralize the Republicans' own supporters.
The media furor and frenzy may have caused some Republican leaders to instinctively come to Senator Lott's defense against overblown charges. Moreover, a sense of decency probably made them reluctant to publicly humiliate the man by stripping him of his majority leadership position.
But, make no mistake, the Republicans have already paid a price -- and it is only the down payment. That Senator Lott did not step aside himself is a greater disqualification for leadership than anything that he said.