News Analysis: Method to GOP Madness In Trent Lott Rehabilitation

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, New America Media
Tuesday November 21, 2006

Trent Lott, the new Senate minority whip! At first glance it seemed the Republicans had gone completely cuckoo when they narrowly voted to elevate the once-disgraced senator from Mississippi to Republican second-in-command in the Senate. 

The memory is still fresh of the national firestorm Lott set off four years ago with his tout of segregation—not to mention his decades-long, hard-line opposition to anything that smacked of expanding civil rights and civil liberties protections, or his snuggle-up to unreconstructed Southern bigots and far-right groups. 

The Lott rehab seems exactly the wrong thing for the GOP to do to right its course after the wreck of midterm elections. But GOP leaders have something else in mind with Lott, and that gives a strong hint of just where the party is headed in Congress and how it will play the 2008 elections. 

After his election as minority whip, Lott moved quickly to burnish his image as a statesman-like, lower-keyed, less polarizing leader. He deftly deflected questions from reporters about his role in the Senate, telling them that the spotlight belongs to GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. But Lott’s voting record tells the real story. After his fall from grace he remained the same hard-line opponent and obstructionist to moderate reform legislation. 

He voted for the House’s punitive immigration bill and a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag. He voted for the failed anti-gay marriage amendment and to cut billions from welfare, child support and student lending programs. He voted to make it tougher to file class action suits against malfeasant corporations. He cheer-led the confirmations of conservative Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. 

His penchant for backroom wheeling and dealing and his intimate knowledge of every trick in the parliamentary book, honed from decades of Senate experience, make Lott the ideal one to delay, stall, or stonewall any and every effort Senate Democrats may make to wind down the Iraq war, promote affordable health care, shave off the punitive edges of the Patriot Act, hike spending on education and social services, strengthen environmental and labor protections and reverse Bush’s corporate tax cut giveaways. 

Lott has much greater political value to the GOP beyond his ability to frustrate Senate Democrats. The Lott rehab sends a strong signal that the GOP will do everything it can to win back the thousands of wayward evangelicals and hard-core conservatives who strayed from the flock during the midterm elections and backed Democrats. The estimate is that one out of five white evangelicals broke ranks with the GOP out of anger, disgust and frustration with Bush’s war policies and the GOP’s sex and corruption scandals. A significant block of those disaffected core conservatives are Southerners. That set off especially loud warning bells in the GOP upper ranks. 

The Southern Strategy has been the bread and butter for GOP politicians seeking to bag and hold the White House, stretching back to Dwight Eisenhower. The potential defection of many Southern conservatives, and the boast by Democratic National Chair Howard Dean to contest the Republicans in all 50 states, poses mortal peril to that strategy. 

If the Democrats can unhinge one or two Southern states from the GOP orbit, that could tip the White House to them. A centrist, border state or Southern Democratic presidential candidate, a la Bill Clinton, could do that. He would be competitive with the GOP in the South, especially if Arizona Sen. John McCain or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the Republican presidential candidate. Both are considered Republican moderates and would be a much tougher sell to hard-line conservatives than Bush Jr. The appointment of Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to head the Republican National Committee didn’t help matters. It irked some conservatives, who consider Martinez too moderate and too soft on immigration. Lott is the perfect antidote to soothe their ruffled feelings and shore up the conservative credentials of a McCain or Giuliani. 

During his Senate re-election campaign, Lott showed that he could still rev up a crowd and get out the vote. He easily brushed aside his Democratic opponent. That further confirmed that Lott still has real stump value. 

In decades past, GOP leaders’ respectable gray flannel suit opposition to civil rights was the big reason they were able to resuscitate the party from its century of near extinction in the Deep South and make it the dominant force in national politics. Lott played a big part in that resurgence. The GOP banks that he could play a big part of another resurgence in 2008. 


New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).