Decline and fallout
After Lott's withdrawal, a new Senate leader and a chance to make amends with a troubled past
In the aftermath of the November midterm elections, Trent Lott was ecstatic. After a frustrating year as Senate minority leader, Lott was looking forward to a return to the majority leader's chair. Oops.
His decision to step down, just days before Christmas, was one of those eerie Washington dramas, ordained almost from the start, though the central participants--and Lott primarily--seemed not to know it. "I think [Lott's] had a very hard time understanding what a political mess he created for himself," says Earl Black, a professor of political science and an expert on the rise of the Republican Party in the South.
Lott's fall, as it turns out, is about much more than Trent Lott. In the end, the winner, once again, was George W. Bush. Each week, it seems, the president is remaking the Republican Party in his image. Not long after Lott spoke at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party earlier in the month, the White House understood what a mess he had created for a party and a president trying to outrun its reputation for divisive racial politics. For public consumption, the White House maintained a calm above-the-fray demeanor, but nearly everyone in official Washington knew better. Thus it was no surprise that the man who emerged as Lott's likely replacement was a trusted Bush friend, Bill Frist, a "new South" Republican with none of Lott's racial baggage. Enormously respected, and popular on both sides of the aisle, Frist is a man on the move, a player with an A game. "If I could buy stock in him," Texas Sen. Phil Gramm told National Journal back in September, "I would."
Renunciation. Now the party, and particularly its leadership in the Senate, must figure out how to put the damage of l'affaire Lott behind it and put together a credible game plan for next year. Lott, of course, will be treated with kid gloves. "He deserves a soft landing," says Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico Republican. Though he has never been a committee chairman, there is talk now that Lott may be offered the reins of the powerful Rules Committee.
But the bigger question is how Frist and his colleagues can help President Bush move an ambitious political agenda through the chamber during a period that will almost certainly, it seems now, be overshadowed by the specter of war. If nothing else, ironically, the Lott controversy gives the president the opportunity to confront the GOP's racial history head-on and to compete more aggressively with the Democrats for bigger numbers of black votes. It's hardly a given that such a play will work. But Bush's stout denunciation of Lott's remarks gives him a better base than he has had to make the effort. "President Bush is leading a Republican Party," says Earl Black, "that does not have any stake in the racial politics of the '60s and early '70s." Added John McCain, the Arizona Republican: "Our task is to make it unambiguously clear to the American people that we are an inclusive party in the spirit of our founder, Abraham Lincoln."
Democrats, of course, aren't being quite so magnanimous. The Senate's new majority leader, says Tom Daschle, the South Dakotan who must now relinquish that post, "must do more now than merely disavow Senator Lott's words; he or she must confront the Republican Party's record on race and embrace policies that promote genuine healing."
Frist, many believe, may be just the man for the job. "You get a leader perfectly comfortable going after black votes," says Black. "It allows the Republican Party to move away from the Jesse Helms model of the past. What you get is a philosophical conservative, but on this issue, he may get Republicans a second look among middle-class blacks and conservative blacks." Whether that second look translates into votes is crucial to the future success of the GOP. No one understands that better than George W. Bush.
This story appears in the December 30, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.