Trent Lott has grudgingly relinquished his grip on the Senate majority leader post, but that doesn’t mean that the Republican Party has purged “the spirit of Jefferson Davis” that Lott famously described as living on in the party platform. Indeed, on the same day that Lott resigned, GOP Congressman Cass Ballenger of North Carolina told the Charlotte Observer that Georgia Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney was “a bitch” whose politics had so provoked him that “I must admit I had segregationist feelings.” Like Lott when his approving comments about Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign caused a storm of protest, Ballenger insisted that he was guilty only of a poor “choice of words.”

Lott’s fate was sealed when the White House decided it needed a smoother, and smarter, son of the Confederacy running the Senate. But the record of Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, elected December 23, is no better than Lott’s: The NAACP gives him a 15 percent rating in its latest survey of Senate votes compared with 12 percent for Lott; the latest National Hispanic Leadership Agenda survey gave Frist 18 percent to Lott’s 27. A People for the American Way study of the voting records of Lott, Frist and the three other contenders for Senate leader (Mitch McConnell, Don Nickles and Rick Santorum) showed that all five cast identical votes on civil rights measures that include the Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 1996 and the Hate Crimes Expansion Act of 2000.

The reason the White House turned on Lott had little to do with distaste for the Mississippian’s remarks at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party; it moved only when it appeared the controversy might expose a penchant to play the race card when convenient. Bush, in trouble in the 2000 primaries, appeared at Bob Jones University, which lost its tax-exempt status for maintaining a policy that “students who date outside their own race will be expelled.” His Attorney General, John Ashcroft, led the fight against desegregating Missouri schools and praised Confederate generals as “Southern patriots.” Bush still hopes to resubmit his federal appeals court nomination of Charles Pickering, who in 1994 tried to soften the sentence of a convicted cross-burner.

As the Lott controversy played out, prominent conservatives griped that attention to Republican positioning on race might make it politically unpalatable for the White House to back a challenge to race-based affirmative action in a pending Supreme Court case. And the Wall Street Journal condemned Lott’s “unprincipled apologies”–particularly his sudden embrace of affirmative action–for steering the GOP “away from clear thinking about race.” What these conservatives want is a return to the pre-Lott good old days when it was possible for the President’s aides to sell him as a “new kind of Republican” while quietly using race-based appeals.

The question is whether Democrats and the media will allow this to happen. Only after civil rights groups, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi raised a ruckus–with an assist from a handful of conservatives who actually think the GOP has to clean up its act–did most Senate Democrats, including party leader Tom Daschle, consider doing the right thing. With Lott out, Democrats face as great a test as Republicans: Will they refuse to permit the race card to be played any longer, or will they welcome the return of the conspiracy of silence that permitted Lott and others like him to operate so successfully for so long?