The Magazine

The Democrats' Race to the Bottom

There they go again. . .

Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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DEMOCRATS GOT SMART about the Trent Lott controversy too late. A few days before Lott stepped down as majority leader, prominent Democratic politicians and pundits--Rep. John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, James Carville, Lanny Davis--began saying that Lott should remain. They all spoke of forgiveness and redemption and deplored the harsh world of Washington politics.

Even the most casual observer could see that Democrats wanted Lott to keep his official job, as Senate GOP leader, and his unofficial one, as the face of Republican racism. Even as top Democratic partisans were making nice with Lott, former President Bill Clinton was reinforcing the notion that Lott's offensive words were a gaffe that had exposed a Republican agenda "inimical to everything this country stands for."

"How do they think they got a majority in the South anyway?" Clinton asked on CNN. "I think what they are really upset about is that [Lott] made public their strategy." Clinton added: "He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day."

There you have it--a simple, two-tiered strategy: Keep Trent Lott in power, then portray the Republicans as the party of Trent Lott, neosegregationist. Into the bargain, Democrats would push Lott to abandon the colorblind policies favored by Republicans in Congress, by Republican voters, and by an overwhelming majority of Americans, according to most polls.

Indeed, on that score, Democrats succeeded with respect to Lott himself. Lott told Black Entertainment Television's Ed Gordon that he supports affirmative action "absolutely." What's more, he said, his efforts from now on would be "about actions more than words. As majority leader I can move an agenda that would have things that would be helpful to African Americans and minorities of all kinds and all Americans."

Plainly, Lott, had he retained his leadership job, would have taken his party along on a Repent with Trent tour, trying desperately--a statute here, a preference there--to win the approval of black political leaders. Naturally, any such attempt to fawn his way to favor would have failed. Lott was too valuable to the Democrats. You can hear them now: How can you, Candidate X, oppose affirmative action? Even Trent Lott, who wanted the segregationists to win in 1948, is for affirmative action.

No, the Democrats wanted Lott right where he was--in leadership. They wanted him because they need black voters and high turnouts, or their fragile interest-group coalition falls apart. For them, Republicans reasonable on race and attractive to blacks are a mortal danger.

Think back to the presidential election in 2000. George W. Bush ran as a new, inclusive, "compassionate conservative." He swore he would ban racial profiling. He denounced "the soft bigotry of low expectations." He backed some school choice proposals, strongly favored by most blacks with school-aged children. He was loath to mention racial preferences or affirmative action. His nominating convention was a multicultural wonderland.

Despite all of this, an outsider watching the final days of the Democrats' 2000 campaign could have concluded that George W. Bush was Jefferson Davis and that segregation, lynching, and voting rights were major issues.

At an appearance at a black church in Pittsburgh as part of a last-minute attempt to get black voters to the polls, Al Gore accused Bush of speaking in code on the campaign trail. "When my opponent, Governor Bush, says that he will appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court," Gore said, "I often think of the strictly constructionist meaning that was applied when the Constitution was written, how some people were considered three-fifths of a human being."

Later that weekend, Gore joined Louvan Harris, sister of the murdered James Byrd Jr., on stage in Philadelphia. He listened to her describe her brother's horrible killing by Texas racists. "They spray-painted him black, chained him to a truck, dragged him three miles. His head came off, his arms--dismembered his whole body," Harris said. Gore stood by silently as Harris continued, "We have a governor of Texas who doesn't think that's a hate crime. My question to him is, if that isn't hate, what is hate to George Bush? He had an opportunity to do something for our family. He did nothing."

The NAACP memorably turned that repulsive crime into an anti-Bush campaign ad, featuring grainy, black-and-white footage of a pickup truck, chains dragging from the back. Jesse Jackson was asked on CNN, "Is the NAACP going too far in suggesting that Governor Bush is someone who could support the murder of James Byrd?" He gave a direct answer: "No."

Get that? George W. Bush could support the murder of James Byrd.