The selection of the Senate Republican leader is up to the Republican senators, but events are trending badly against Trent Lott, in substantial part because of what Mr. Lott has said and done since the story broke. Last week this newspaper, with other conservative editorial pages, rebuked the senator for his indefensible statements. Since then, he has made two attempts at public statements of explanation and apology. Both on “The Sean Hannity Show” and at the later hometown press conference his words and demeanor disappointed many of his friends and supporters. The tone was peremptory and oddly upbeat. Whatever the original intent of his words may have been, his subsequent comments disclosed little appreciation for the depth of civic passion they aroused amongst conservatives as well as liberals. His use of the word “mixed” to describe meetings with blacks and whites in attendance only emphasized his seemingly anachronistic sensitivities about race in America.
Some Republicans and conservatives continue to rally to Mr. Lott, largely because they refuse to surrender one of their own to the predictable shots being taken by the political opposition. But because the criticism of Mr. Lott was stronger, earlier from the conservative rather than the liberal side, this defense has proved less stout than it otherwise might have been. Clearly, other Republicans, including some who have spoken out against him, are his historic intra-party enemies who are taking this opportunity to gain a march on the majority leader. Yet others in and out of the Senate have other grievances against him, having nothing to do with the race issue.
However, the two big blows that may prove fatal came from President Bush on Thursday and several Republican senators over the last 48 hours. The president’s statement was triggered by Mr. Lott’s ineffective performance on Sean Hannity, but was probably motivated by the president’s independent decision to distance himself from Mr. Lott. But the negative statements by his fellow Republican senators and their call yesterday for a conference Jan. 6 to resolve the matter was clearly motivated in large part by what was perceived as Mr. Lott’s mistaken efforts.
The thinly veiled blackmail threat that emerged over the weekend that Mr. Lott might quit the Senate and risk it falling back into Democratic hands was not taken well, even by several of his Senate supporters. While the source of that story was not clear, the failure to knock it down was noticed by his fellow senators. Also disturbing to Republican senators was the other threat to start fly-specking the racial record of his possible challengers for the leader’s post, as well it should be. We are probably in for a season of fly-specking. At a time when his continued leadership increasingly is being seen as a detriment to the Republican Party, the tone emanating from the Lott camp “Apres moi, le Deluge” did not help his efforts.
Politics is never a sentimental business, and many seemingly inconsequential statements or events have ended famous careers. Ed Muskie’s famous teardrops in the New Hampshire presidential primary is an example. The harsh political fact facing the Republican senators is that they have a choice between advancing or diminishing the Republican Party’s ability to reach out to voters beyond white males. Unfair though it may be, if they keep Mr. Lott as leader, millions of voters will be susceptible to the argument that the Republican Party is not welcoming to people of all races and ethnicities.
Democratic Party activists have spent an enjoyable weekend (for them) cheerfully telling people that they hope Mr. Lott stays in office, wounded, rather than being removed from office. Whatever the decision, the Republican senators have been given an opportunity to affirm their commitment to a color-blind society.
In a few weeks, the Republican senators will assemble to resolve the matter. They will have to balance these hard political facts against the sentiments of loyalty, fairness and the natural displeasure of being bullied by an opponent. While politics is not sentimental, it is nonetheless a very human activity. It has been particularly painful to many people in the last two weeks to a chastened Trent Lott as well as to millions of Americans of all colors.