So, now that Trent Lott has stepped down as Majority Leader, the question naturally rises for the Democrats: what next?
It seems to me that the Democrats have an opportunity here, but it's an opportunity that is almost always missed when it arises in the course of political life. When politicians reach a fork in the road, and this particular opportunity lies one way, the politicians almost invariably choose the other path. What is the opportunity? The chance to shut up, say nothing, and move on to the next thing.
By this I mean, no gloating; no crowing and attacking; no rubbing of the hands with glee before looking around and saying, "Who's next?" I'm hoping that the whole Lott fiasco does not start another feeding frenzy of the sort that consumed politics from the late 1980s -- when Senate Democrats organized to scrub President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court -- and well into the 1990s, when the unfortunate phrase "the blood sport of Washington" became so apt. Perhaps the fact that a great deal of the pressure on Lott came, eventually, from Republicans may alleviate any need for reprisal and counterattack. Perhaps.
This isn't to say, though, that the entire issue should be swept under the rug. I was listening to the public radio program Here and Now earlier today, and they had a guest -- a journalist whose name I do not recall -- express the fear that Lott's decision to step down as Majority Leader would put an end to the entire story, which involves the larger reality that racial issues are still a very big problem in America. This journalist drew a parallel with the conclusion of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when for about a week after the verdict there was a great deal of concern in the national media about what it all meant -- especially the fact that whites by and large thought that Simpson had gotten away with murder, whereas an almost identical proportion of African Americans felt that the correct verdict had been rendered. What did this mean for race relations in the United States? We still don't know, because no real dialog ever took place -- instead, we moved on to the next story. I hope that this does not happen here, but I fear it will: we will say to ourselves, "There, someone said something racist and got what he deserved, so we can stop concerning ourselves with race for a while." That would be the wrong thing to do.
As for Lott, I'm fine with him staying in the Senate while abdicating his leadership position. I'm a firm believer in letting the punishment fit the crime, and I don't feel that his comments -- stupid and racist as they were -- warranted his removal, either forced or by back-room coercion, from the Senate. (Now, his comments might very well warrant his removal from office by the voters, which is one reason why I have always been against term limits for elected officials. A lame-duck officeholder has nothing whatsoever to lose by saying or doing things as dumb as this.) I felt the same way during the impeachment of President Clinton: he did a loutish thing, but it did not warrant his removal from office. In a little more than a month, Trent Lott has gone from salivating over the prospects of leading one half of a Republican-controlled Congress with a Republican President and a friendly Supreme Court down the street; now he's just one more member of the Senate. That's pretty far to fall, in and of itself.