Like punch-drunk prize fighters, the Democrats were stumbling around after November 5 trying to figure out what hit them and what to do next when Republican Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader-in-waiting, handed them their marching orders.
That, of course, was not Lott's intention when he attended fellow-Senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party on December 5. His intention was to deliver a bon mot in praise of the centenarian. He 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 those problems over all these years." Some bon mot.
It took the Democrats about a minute to shake the cobwebs from their collective head and go to work. Having gone through an entire election without offering the voters a single idea, they put their heretofore unused brain power to an immediate plan to wreak revenge on the Republicans. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi thundered. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, at first mildly sympathetic to Lott's plight, quickly changed his tone when he understood the political possibilities. Black Caucus members threatened a formal motion to censure Lott when the 108th Congress opens. Campaign operatives smacked their lips over the replay of Lott soundbites in 2004 television ads.
Lott's first strategy was to issue an offhand statement of apology that satisfied no one. He had hoped the issue would soon blow away in the December winds that have turned Washington wintry. When it became clear that more was needed, he went on two sympathetic talk-radio shows, but the story kept growing. Reporters sought statements from various Republican leaders, most of whom ran for cover. Not so conservative columnists, commentators and activists. The Family Research Council issued a strongly-worded statement condemning Lott's remarks. Cal Thomas, whose column is syndicated in several hundred newspapers, wrote that Lott "might as well be a Democratic Party mole, placed among Republicans to cause his party severe political damage."
Last Thursday, President Bush, before a largely black audience in Philadelphia, spoke out against Lott's "mistake" in sharp and forceful tones, though he did not call for Lott to step aside as majority leader.
On Friday, Lott sought to put the issue to rest with a 30-minute news conference in his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Although many of the words in his statement were those of apology and contrition, they were delivered with no discernible emotional intensity (let alone passion). The press conference was widely seen as a failure.
Twenty Republican senators had a conference telephone call Friday which lasted much longer than planned and during which a good many negative assessments were made.
During the first day or two it seemed to the Republicans that the controversy was largely a matter of Democrats trying to make hay out of an ill-chosen remark. By week's end, however, the issue had gone well beyond that to the question of how the party wants to be seen as it goes forward, leading both houses of Congress as well as the White House. By keeping Lott in place, is the party of Lincoln telling African-Americans that it is unconcerned about throwbacks to what Lott seems to think were the "good old days" of segregation? That, of course, is not the way the party wants to be seen. But will it do anything about it? Oklahoma Senator Don Nickles, the Republican whip for the last several years, yesterday proposed that a meeting of the caucus be called to reconsider the November election of Lott to the leadership position. If four other GOP senators join him in the call, the meeting will be held.
Lott's 50 Republican colleagues in the Senate now realize they are the ones who can make this problem go away -- by replacing Lott as majority leader. If Lott stays, the Democrats -- with relish -- will remind the public endlessly that the Republicans are led by a man who extols a long-discredited chapter in the nation's history. Lott is not the first politician with a tin ear or his foot in his mouth, but he is one the Republicans cannot afford as their leader. He should step down.