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The Democrats' Lot

Even the president's brother jumped on the dump-Lott bandwagon -- as if that alone would resolve the GOP's race problem. Do Democrats finally have an issue to reunite them?

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Now that Trent lott has been hung out and dried, the Republican Party must be happy that it can put this little mess behind it. Conservative commentators, a few of Lott's fellow GOP senators, and even the president roused themselves to inveigh against Jim Crow, so the message will go out loud and clear that the "party of Lincoln" doesn't tolerate such retrograde thinking.

That's nice. But bouncing Lott should hardly be the end of this, and if the Democrats have any courage and imagination, they will keep this issue alive and force George W. Bush to take some stands that might cause many in his party a good deal of discomfort.

They could start by challenging Bush about his party's electoral tactics. Bush talks a good game about minority outreach, but the fact is that in every election cycle--every one--the Republican Party, through conservative shell organizations funded by pro-GOP donors, uses racially divisive tactics in any number of local and statewide elections.

This year produced the usual distasteful litany. In New Jersey, about 2,000 voters in mostly black and Latino areas of Passaic got postcards warning of fines and imprisonment for voter fraud. In Louisiana, pamphlets were circulated in New Orleans public-housing projects just before the Saturday, December 7, runoff between Mary Landrieu and Suzanne Haik Terrell advising voters that if they didn't feel like voting on Saturday, they could show up the following Tuesday and the polls would be open ("Vote!!! Bad Weather? No Problem!!!"). And in Maryland, fliers circulated in some black neighborhoods of Baltimore warning people that they had to pay outstanding parking tickets, old warrants, and even back rent before they could vote.

There's plenty more--in Michigan, New Mexico, Arkansas, and other states. In Missouri, a novel twist debuted this year in the form of ads on black radio making the case that Democrats' support of Social Security was racist because black people on average die younger than white people, a fact that renders Social Security a sop to whitey (or "reverse reparations," as the ad had it). Another ad advised black listeners not to "buy the Democratic line. Killing unborn babies is not the way to help those in poverty." Who knew the Social Security Administration was a white-supremacist front group, or that supporting a woman's right to choose was a plot against poor people? Lucky we have the party of Lincoln to straighten us out on such matters.

Bush may personally hold very different beliefs from Lott, or at least from the pre-BET Lott. But would he be willing to say that the GOP should once and for all empty out this bag of tricks? Unlikely, since he's relied on them himself. In 2000, he sent the message he needed to send in South Carolina by speaking at Bob Jones University-- campus on whose grounds his brother Jeb could not have dated his Mexican-American wife, Columba. In Georgia this year, Bush scurried away from questions about whether the state should go back to the old flag, which featured the Stars and Bars more prominently, saying it was a local issue and therefore not his concern-although it was, of course, the abiding concern of the candidates he came to the state to campaign for. It may not be that the flag issue was the factor in the GOP sweep in Georgia, but, in the words of Tim Phillips, who ran Democratic governor Roy Barnes's campaign, "it was the dry tinder on the ground that Bush's visits ignited."

Democrats--and it has to be senators; in today's Washington, only senators have the stature to force an issue like this-should make Bush account for those tactics. Or this might be a useful time to revisit the record of our attorney general. John Ashcroft, too, has given interviews to the neo-Confederate Southern Partisan magazine in which he spoke of the Confederacy as misunderstood. As Joe Conason has reported in Salon, Ashcroft met in September 2000 with one Thomas Bugel, the head of the St. Louis chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, to discuss the case of a CCC member being detained for threatening to shoot an FBI agent. The CCC is the same organization that Lott has lately had to disavow; Ashcroft claimed not to know Bugel's CCC connection even though Bugel was a fixture in the Missouri papers at a time when Ashcroft was both senator and governor.

Ashcroft will be tough to get--they can wrap him in war cover. Not so, though, with Charles Pickering, the federal judicial nominee from Mississippi who's coming up for a vote soon. And is it possible now that the Democrats can actually use affirmative action as a wedge issue? A major case out of Michigan is making its way up to the Supreme Court. The Bush administration is weighing whether to file a brief by the January 16 deadline. A strong faction inside the administration, led by Solicitor General Ted Olson, wants to oppose affirmative action, while others want to support it or straddle the fence. Democrats have a chance here to force a Hobson's choice on Bush: If he comes out against affirmative action, it helps ensure that the GOP won't get very far with minorities for some time to come; if he supports it, he's got big problems with the hard right that is his base.

On top of that, forcing the administration's hand on affirmative action would bring the added benefit of making mischief in the larger Bush household. As governor, Jeb instituted a policy that ended affirmative action in admissions to Florida state universities. Democrats have a chance here to set the GOP against itself, and into the bargain help see to the continued existence of a policy that's been at the core of their beliefs for nearly 40 years.

Will they seize it? Piling on Lott was a free swing, and they were hesitant at first even to take it. For days, Democrats didn't make a sound; the controversy might never have erupted if it hadn't been for one Democrat who finally had the nerve to call Lott's comment racist four days after he said it. That Democrat was Al Gore, whose words will carry less force now that he's taken himself out of the presidential race.

Other than Gore, and another retired pol named Clinton who called GOP attacks on Lott "hypocritical," Democrats don't have much fight in them. They've become the battered-wife party: They look at the Republican Party--the money, the institutions, the effective propaganda machine--and see a big bruiser in the living room. They're terrified of him, and they can't muster the power to change the situation. Someday, I suppose, they'll break the cycle. But if they can't find the will to do it on an issue like race--where they have the moral high ground and a pretty large target in the person of a president who pays lots of lip service to the notion that he wants to change his party's ways-it's hard to know when they might.


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