Clearly embarrassed by Trent Lott, conservative columnist George Will and others like him are trying to retake the offensive by accusing the Democrats of seizing on the blunder to do some race-baiting of their own. Methinks they protest too much. In fact, they've been lucky that the Democrats have let this sleeping dog lie for so long.
The harsh, uncomfortable truth is that for 30 years now, the GOP has been electing candidates throughout the South by playing the race card. Nixon's infamous "Southern Strategy" (another term for demagoguery, deflection, smear tactics and flat-out racist appeals) has been used quite effectively. Until Lott managed to swing the national spotlight onto the issue, I know of not one national Republican leader or commentator who ever rose in objection to this practice.
Now embarrassed Republicans -- including the President and likely most senators who serve in states outside the south -- would like to draw a circle around Lott, as if he alone is the problem.
This worries me, because if they get to have their druthers, Lott's departure from his leadership position will be taken as a way off the hook. It shouldn't be that easy. There remain, after all, good reasons African-Americans continue to support Democrats to the tune of more than 80 percent. The Republicans employed the Southern Strategy as recently as 2000, supporting Bob Jones University and showing reluctance to criticize prominent displays of the Confederate flag. Even John McCain could not bring himself to say what was really on his mind about that flag.
Democrats took the moral high ground on race back in 1948, when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey called his party to account. (It was for that reason, not because of alleged Commies in the State Department, that old Strom switched parties.) Democrats have held that high ground ever since. Harry Truman? He integrated the armed services. Jack Kennedy? He sent troops into Little Rock to enforce an integration order. Lyndon Johnson? He really did believe in Civil Rights and walked his talk, even though he knew his legislative initiatives of 1964-65 would cost the Democrats the South for years to come. Jimmy Carter? One of his first acts as governor of Georgia was courageous. He placed a portrait of Martin Luther King in the state house.
Can the GOP identify a single Republican leader who would have taken any of these actions or have initiated any of these policies? Aside from Earl Warren and William Brennan, two turncoats, we can't associate Republicans with any serious effort to sort out the residue of slavery. No on integration, no on public accommodations legislation, no on voting rights acts, no even on Martin Luther King's birthday holiday. Nothing.
If Republicans don't manage to shed not only Lott but the shadow of racism under which he has operated, the public dialogue will suffer. The truth is -- and Democrats won't like to hear this -- it has been neo-conservative intellectuals toiling in universities and think tanks and working as congressional staffers, who have challenged so many of the problematic social and economic policies created during the go-go years of the Great Society. If, for reasons of political expediency, the GOP retreats from these often-trenchant criticisms, we won't be better off. Republicans, not Democrats, have drawn the critical distinction between public education and the public education "establishment" and have argued that minorities, including African-Americans, are perhaps not well served by that establishment. Democrats remain captive to that establishment. We also have the GOP to thank for making the case against the rigid, overly formulaic applications of affirmative action principles. We have the GOP to thank for making the seemingly obvious association between jobs, largely created in the private sector, and social progress. We have neo-conservatives to thank for raising questions about welfare reform.
I don't believe that favoring vouchers equates with racism; neither does taking issue with affirmative action. Indeed, to the contrary, one can argue (as these reformers do) that vouchers, welfare reform and meritocracy actually further minority progress. Nor does one have to agree with the criticisms and prescriptions being offered by these neo-conservative critics to agree that the issues they have raised needed to be aired in a rigorous public debate. Unfortunately for them and their party, the Trent Lott affair has invited the charge that all Republicans have ulterior motives, that what they really seek is a continuation of the Southern Strategy by other means.
To remove Lott's tarnish, I have a suggestion for the GOP. Let the Republican leadership, including the president, seek the placement of a statue of Abraham Lincoln on the grounds of every statehouse in the old Confederacy. Lincoln, after all, was a Republican, and one would think that all Republicans would, especially now, want to honor the president who saved the union from people like Strom Thurmond.