After losing the House and the Senate in the November 7 election, Republicans have been talking about how to create a new and more appealing public image for the Congressional party that has suffered from its association with corruption scandals, crude policies and divisive statements.
Well, the search for the fresh face of the Grand Old Party is done.
Senate Republicans have elected as their “new” whip Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.
The Dixiecrat-defending southerner will now be the No. 2 man in the Republican leadership, serving at the side of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell – the chamber’s leading opponent of campaign finance and ethics reforms – who was unanimously elected to replace outgoing Tennessee Senator Bill Frist as majority leader.
Lott’s return to a leadership position comes four years after the Mississippian, who was then the Senate Majority Leader, stood at the side of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and recalled the aging legislator’s 1948 bid for the presidency as a defender of racial segregation on the State’s Rights (or Dixiecrat) ticket.
“I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it,” Lott told a crowd gathered in Washington to mark the South Carolinian’s 100th birthday. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
The seeming suggestion that the progress toward racial equality achieved since the late 1940s was problematic for the country reinforced concerns about Lott’s sensitivities – especially among those who recalled that, as a congressman, the Mississippian had voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act and opposed establishing a national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. There was also the matter of Lott’s long association with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), an outgrowth of the White Citizens’ Councils that in the 1960s led the fight against integration and voting rights in the Deep South. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League had all identified the CCC as a hate group, but Lott continued to meet with its leadership and appear at its events.
So troubling were Lott’s remarks, especially when placed in the context of his record, that President Bush declared, “Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals.”
Shortly thereafter, under pressure from Senate Republicans, Lott stepped down as majority leader to be replaced by Frist.
Now, Lott’s back in the leadership, having defeated Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander by a single vote in a caucus meeting Wednesday.
Alexander had been campaigning for the whip’s position for more than a year, as part of a plan by the twice-defeated presidential candidate to eventually become the party’s senate leader. But Lott upset the scheme.
Why did Strom’s friend win? Despite his unsavory past, Lott’s much more a “man of the Senate” than Alexander. Many Senate Republicans who want to move away from the harsh partisanship that defined the chamber under Frist’s leadership favored Lott over Frist’s fellow Tennessean. Republican senators quietly admitted that Lott would be much more likely to support efforts to reassert the role of the party’s Senate caucus as an independent entity – rather than a mere extension of Bush White House political and policy offices – than the always-on-the-hustle Alexander.
The fact is that Lott’s backers are probably right. The Mississippian owes little loyalty to the Bush White House, unlike Alexander, and as such is probably likely to be a more independent plater.
But what a sad statement Lott’s return to the leadership makes: With all his history, it appears that the senator from Mississippi is still the best that Republicans seeking renewal of their party’s fortunes can come up with.
John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com