THIS PAST WEEKEND was doubly disastrous for the American conservative movement—first because Al Gore stepped aside, and second because Trent Lott didn’t.
Had Gore decided to run for the presidency in 2004, he likely would have guaranteed President George W. Bush’s re-election. He was, from the Democratic point of view, the worst possible sort of candidate—a hero to the party faithful, and perpetually irritating to most everyone else. He would have been the Democrats’ Bob Dole, a shoe-in in the primaries due to his political longevity, and a turn-off in the general election due his passé politics and uninspiring persona.
The Democrats are better off without him.
Gore knew it. He spent the last quarter of 2002 trying to win the hearts of the American public, all to no avail. Over the last month, he set out on a promotional tour for a new book that has sold pathetically despite unceasing publicity—evidence that the former vice president’s popularity doesn’t extend beyond the TV producers who gave him millions of dollars in free airtime. He saw his poll numbers, which show him trailing Bush, the man he once beat in the popular vote, by some 20 points in a hypothetical 2004 rematch. And he must have been disheartened when that lead held steady despite his publicity blitz.
Most of all, Gore realized he was a distraction. "I think that a campaign that would be a rematch between myself and President Bush would inevitably involve a focus on the past," he told 60 Minutes, "that would in some measure distract from the focus on the future that I think all campaigns have to be about."
Gore had enough humility to recognize that he was not the man to lead the Democrats to the promised land. Politically, he was more interested in seeing his side win than in hanging on to the spotlight. So, in an unselfish and magnanimous manner that shocked just about everyone, he bowed out gracefully.
If only Trent Lott were as selfless, principled and committed to a cause greater than himself as—who ever would have guess it?—Al Gore.
The arguments as to what Lott meant or didn’t mean by his infamous remarks about Strom Thurmond have been dealt with elsewhere and need not be discussed here. The bigger point is that, fairly or unfairly, Lott, like Gore, has become a distraction to the movement he is working to advance. For the Republican Party, which is trying desperately (and, under Bush, successfully) to broaden its reach among minorities and white moderates, his comments, whether benignly intended or not, were devastating. As David Horowitz observed, even if Lott is not a racist, "at the very best, he is tone deaf to the most important domestic issue of our time."
Lott’s most steadfast defender in the Senate, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, has been quick to point out that last year, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd used the phrase "white nigger," quickly apologized, and was promptly forgiven. If Byrd can get a free pass, why can’t Lott?
Well, for starters, Byrd is not the leader of his party, and as such, he need not command the respect or support of anyone outside of his state. But more significantly, he is a liberal and a Democrat, and liberals and Democrats are held to a lower standard on matters of political correctness than are conservatives and Republicans. It’s not fair, but it’s reality.
With a national media and civil-rights establishment that’s dominated by left-wing partisans, conservatives have no choice but to tread more carefully. The margin of error for the right in such matters is perilously small. That’s what makes Lott’s outrageous and offensive remarks (by any standard) all the more distressing. As one of the nation’s top Republican spokesmen, he should know better than anyone just how important it is for someone in his position to choose his words carefully.
Were Lott to forfeit his position as Senate Majority Leader, he would give a small, brief victory to the likes of Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, and fellow race-baiters. But if he hangs on, he will hand them many larger, sustained victories for years to come. Under Lott, Republicans and the conservatives who support them would be saddled with a leadership lacking the political capital or credibility to take on divisive issues from welfare to affirmative action without getting tagged with the "racist" label—and having it stick.
The effects are already visible. On Monday, Lott took to BET to make the case that he’s not a bigot after all, which he did by rhetorically distancing himself from the conservative agenda. "I'm for affirmative action and I’ve practiced it," he pleaded.
If Lott put the conservative ideals he claims to hold over his personal ambition, he would step down from his leadership post. He would also stay on board as a senator, rather than allowing Mississippi’s Democratic governor to name his replacement. To do anything less would be to expose himself as one more unscrupulous politician motivated more by pride than by purpose—a quality once widely associated with Al Gore.