Circumstances have changed since Republican senators elected Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader 10 days after the November congressional elections. Mr. Lott’s seemingly nostalgic remarks about Sen. Strom Thurmond’s days as a segregationist 1948 presidential candidate have created a political predicament that has yet be resolved, despite Mr. Lott’s repeated apologies and contrition.
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, proposed a way out of the mess in which the Republican Party now finds itself. Because of the changed political atmosphere, Mr. Nickles wants another vote on who should lead Senate Republicans. And he’s getting his wish. Senate Republicans are scheduled to convene on Jan. 6 to decide whether to keep Mr. Lott as majority leader. This is a good idea because it allows Senate Republicans to speak for themselves, not only about what they think of Mr. Lott’s remarks, but also how they would like to be regarded by black citizens.
It isn’t just about breaking with the policies of the past something most people in the South have achieved. It is about breaking with the language, the code words and the political signals sent by a few white politicians to Southern white voters about race. That might have been a good political strategy when Richard Nixon used it in the ‘60s, but it is a bad moral strategy. Republicans should be able to compete based on their ideas and why they are better for black Americans and all Americans, and not appeals, however shrouded, to racism.
Mr. Nickles said that while he accepts Mr. Lott’s multiple apologies, “I am concerned that Sen. Lott has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans.”
This is precisely the point. It isn’t about Mr. Lott, his career, his heart, his sincerity or anything else. It is about a unique opportunity the first in 50 years when Republicans have control of all three branches of government to advance a Republican agenda. That agenda should not be held hostage by any senator. “There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership, and I hope we have an opportunity to choose,” added Mr. Nickles.
Republicans are not united on the question of whether Mr. Lott should be replaced. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week”: “I think we ought to accept [Mr. Lotts] apology and move on.” Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, agreed with Mr. McConnell.
Even those opposed to replacing Mr. Lott will now have the opportunity to debate the issue and to question him personally. The party must address this issue of race and racism, because it is important. Republicans should not let Democrats get away with painting them as racists, especially since it was Southern Democrats more than Republicans who were the principal impediments to the civil rights movement.
John Perkins, a black evangelical Christian from Mississippi, has devoted much of his life to racial reconciliation and community development. He has co-authored a book with a former Ku Klux Klan terrorist, Thomas Tarrants, called “He’s My Brother.” Mr. Perkins tells me he believes “black folk will forgive Lott,” but he worries that Mr. Lott may be so tainted that Democrats will “use Lott to resist issues in which he and the president believe, including tax cuts and other things we need.” Mr. Perkins suggests Mr. Lott may have become a distraction.
There are rumors circulating in Washington that Mr. Lott may resign from the Senate if he is removed as majority leader, allowing Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, to appoint a replacement. Mr. Lott is not given to this kind of petulance, and were he to take such a radical step, it would be seen as a betrayal of his party, the Senate and the things in which he believes.
Mr. Lott’s remarks and their fallout will now be resolved. The future of the Republican agenda and the next election could depend on how the party’s senators decide to deal with Trent Lott.