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.
"The threat is real," Jackson said of Bush that same weekend. "Clarence Thomas, backed by Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch--they'll take us back to 1896 [when the Supreme Court upheld segregation]. We'll go back on organized labor. We'll go back on affirmative action. We'll go back on self-determination."
It's worth noting here that Jackson's disgusting remarks--Clarence Thomas would like to return to an America where segregation is legal?--elicited none of the media response that greeted Trent Lott's comments. Three reasons: One, Jackson isn't the Senate majority leader. Two, Jackson has a long history of outrageous pronouncements. Three, there is a media double standard on race. In Lott's case, most journalists showed up late to the controversy and then piled on. With Jackson, there was no outrage at all. Reporter Greg Bolt of the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard even gave Jackson's comments a sycophantic introduction: "The man known sometimes as the great unifier and the conscience of the nation hammered home the need to vote."
The Clinton administration, never content to leave politics to the political realm, sent Attorney General Janet Reno in front of the cameras to warn against voter intimidation. Five days before the election, Reno warned that federal law contains "special protections for the rights of minority voters and guarantees that they can vote free from acts that intimidate or harass them." She continued: "For example, actions of persons designed to interrupt or intimidate voters at polling places located in minority areas by questioning or challenging them, or by photographing or videotaping them, under the pretext that these are actions to uncover illegal voting may violate federal voting rights law and will not be tolerated."
Reno was essentially updating the words her boss had spoken in 1998, days before a record minority turnout helped Democrats pick up congressional seats against historical precedent. Clinton, speaking specifically to Republicans, had urged them to "stand up and put a stop" to their alleged intimidation of minorities. "For the last several elections there have been examples in various states of Republicans either actually or threatening to try to intimidate or try to invalidate the votes of African Americans in precincts that are overwhelmingly African-American--mostly places where they think it might change the outcome of the election." Despite several attempts by Republicans and at least one reporter to substantiate these charges, the Clinton administration could provide no evidence.
The attacks throughout the 2000 election cycle came despite the virtual absence of race as a policy issue. Shortly before the election, a think tank that focuses on race, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, polled black voters. Only 2percent polled said "race relations/ racism" was the top issue. Even President Clinton, who had spent much of the fall appealing to blacks on behalf of his party, allowed that the election was "not fundamentally about race."
Yet Democrats had a reason for race-baiting: "I think there's no question that the African-American community, no doubt about it, is the base of the Democratic party," Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said on CNN just before the election. "So we're going to be working very hard to get that base out."
Gore's efforts to get the base excited were tireless. Shortly after Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate, a "Democratic strategist" told the New York Times about well-developed plans to go after Cheney for a 1986 vote he cast "against Nelson Mandela." The suggestion was that this was a vote for apartheid. The Democrats' opposition research was effective but dishonest. Cheney had voted against the resolution in question for complicated reasons, most having to do with the Communist leadership of Mandela's African National Congress. Cheney was hardly alone in casting the vote--145 Republicans and 31 Democrats had voted with him. Still, he was forced to explain the vote--one of thousands he'd cast--on numerous occasions during the campaign. Democrats had radio ads in the can. And a media frenzy seemed imminent, especially if Democrats could come up with the right person to make the accusation.
Who better than Bill Clinton? "Now, all the big publicity is about, in the last few days, an amazing vote cast by their vice-presidential nominee when he was in Congress against letting Nelson Mandela out of jail," Clinton said. "That takes your breath away."
But Clinton's effort failed, and the Democratic campaign had to be shelved. This had nothing to do with a sudden emergence of conscience. Rather, it was a product of poor planning. Clinton unveiled his attack on Cheney's vote in speeches at three fundraisers for Democrat Bill Nelson, now the junior senator from Florida. The problem was, Nelson had been in Congress with Cheney, and he had voted the same way. As a spokesman for Nelson explained at the time: "Bottom line is that Nelson strongly supported two components of the measure, and he considers Mandela one of the century's great leaders. He could not support the third, recognizing the ANC, because it was dominated by the Communist party. This vote should be looked at in context."
There were similar efforts to paint Republicans as racists throughout the country. Democrats were behind some of them. Their allies in the NAACP and the civil rights establishment were responsible for others. In a 2000 campaign that even Bill Clinton conceded had little to do with race, race was everywhere.
It would have been again in 2004 had the Democrats had Trent Lott to kick around. They don't, so it won't be as easy for Democrats to play the race card, but Lott's absence won't cause them to stop trying.
Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.