December 20, 2002

OVERREACHING 101 (by David Weigel)

OVERREACHING 101: Anyone who's closely monitored the wires during the Lott story - anyone, say, who is a politics-obsessed college student on vacation - probably noticed that, in its final days, the scandal was no longer about Trent Lott. Bob Herbert was the first pundit with a national audience to suggest that the whole Republican party was racist. But the hardball started on Monday, when the AP reported (and I use that word with a grimace) that Lott and outgoing party whip Don Nickles had built similar votes on "civil rights" bills. Wrote Jim Abrams:

The NAACP says that over the past decade, Nickles and Lott have voted the same on almost every issue deemed important by the civil rights community. And in almost every case, their votes were contrary to the wishes of that community.

You could read that sentence ten more times and it wouldn't stop being surreal. According to this AP reporter, "civil rights" consist of whatever polices are favored by the NAACP. Then came the real sucker-punch:

On the other hand, both Nickles, of Oklahoma, and Lott, of Mississippi, win the highest ratings from conservative groups. In 2000, the American Conservative Union gave both 100 percent ratings on key votes.

If you're a conservative, those two paragraphs should make your blood boil. Conservatism is the opposite of civil rights? And just before and just after Lott resigned, as Bill Frist became his likely successor, we heard the same tune. Judy Woodruff asked Inside Politics viewers (no transcript yet): "Where does Bill Frist stand on civil rights?" She noted that both had voted against affirmative action and against hate crimes legislation. It's almost official. Civil rights are whatever the hell Al Sharpton and Kweisi Mfume say they are.

There is a serious chance that this view of race relations will haunt Republicans with more ferocity than it did before L'affaire Lott. We've never broken the grip that people like Sharpton and Mfume have on the term "civil rights." The idea that ending affirmative action or favoring school vouchers is racially progressive is still considered a joke.

But I think I see an opening. Eric Alterman offered today that "John 'No Other King but Jesus,' Ashcroft" was the "next stop on the Republican Confederate railroad." Tom Tomorrow and Josh Marshall begged readers to send questions to Larry King so he could grill Ashcroft on his interview with Southern Partisan magazine: "Should Ashcroft get a pass for some of the same stuff that's ending Lott's career?" And today Marshall intimates that Frist ran a racist campaign in 1994, when he defeated Jim Sasser. How? By criticizing Sasser's support for Marion Barry.

There is a serious effort to create momentum here, to use the media-driven assumption that Republicans who do NOT follow the NAACP line on race issues are vulnerable, and can be driven out. I think all these bloggers are aware that Frist and Nickles, if ousted, would have their replacements named by Democratic governors. But they're practically ensuring that the Lott scandal will backfire and make Democrats look ravenous. Reasons:

1.) Lott lost his position because the White House dropped him and supported a rival candidate. All of the bloggers in the world wouldn't have made a dent if Bush and Rove didn't see the political benefits of ousting Lott.

2.) Frist and Nickles have never endorsed segregation. As they are not segregationists, forthcoming endorsements are unlikely.

3.) Americans do not equate colorblind policies with racism. Most Americans oppose affirmative action. Most Americans are not racist.

4.) The Republican party has gained tremendous political capital by getting rid of Lott. The next time a racist charge is lobbed - and it could be in the pages of tomorrow's New York Times - it can point to the fact that it got rid of its Senate leader because he made a racist statement. Where's the Democratic leader who got ousted for his racist statements?

Posted by John Tabin at December 20, 2002 04:38 PM