What if Lott stays?

Contrary to my earlier prediction, Lott’s job really seems to be on the line. (I forgot about the possibility that someone would look through the record and find all the other bad stuff.) If he goes, lots of interesting things might happen. But what if he stays? How can the Democrats keep the issue alive, both to reduce the damage that can be done over the next two years and to mobilize Democrats and demoblize Republicans for 2004?

Unlike the House, where the formal vehicle for the decision about which party gets to organize is the vote on the Speakership, the Majority Leader is elected by the caucus, not by the Senate as a whole. So it’s the vote to organize that will in effect make Lott Majority Leader. There’s probably some advantage in emphasizing that, for example by organizing letter-writing campaigns aimed at selected Republican senators, urging them to abstain in the organizing vote unless Lott is replaced. There would be some Republican support for such a campaign. It’s barely conceivable that it might actually succeed, either in forcing Lott out or in peeling off the three abstainers or two switchers it would take to give the Democrats the edge. But the main point would be to make the vote an event rather than a non-event, so that every Republican who didn’t break ranks could be held responsible for “voting to make Trent Lott the Senate Majority Leader.”

Another way to put Republican senators on the spot would be to offer a resolution of censure. This has at least two disadvantages. First, it would open a host of procedural and precedential questions. There have only been nine censures in the history of the Senate, and none provides a close parallel. (McCarthy was censured, as a formal matter, for dissing the investigating committee, not for impugning Gen. Marshall’s patriotism). The Thurmond comment alone seems an inadequate basis to even propose censure; Lott’s history of cooperation with the CCC might make it stronger. Second, a censure motion would put some Southern Democrats in a bind. Bush’s comments about the speech — “offensive and wrong” — would certainly help. Not obvious to me whether or not this is worth pursuing. I’d certainly give priority to Plan A, above.


Philippe DeCroy, one of the new Volokh Conspirators, says what seems obvious: Republicans need Lott out. Therefore, the Democrats would benefit from his staying, and ought, as a tactical matter, to ease up on him now. I’m not sure that’s right. Surely the Republicans would benefit (would have benefited) from a hasty exit by Lott. (Assuming he doesn’t walk out all the way, giving a Democrat his seat.) In the end, they are probably better off without him than with him, even if he refuses to jump and has to be pushed. But there are two good reasons for Democrats not to ease up.

First, Democrats get a lot of votes, a lot of work, and a lot of money from people who think that putting racism behind us is Topic A. It’s not enough that those people be (more) disgusted with the Republicans; they have to believe that the Democrats are with them wholeheartedly. The fury some Repulican sympathizers have shown on this issue makes me think better of them, Claude Raines awards or no. The Democrats must not be behindhand. It’s now public that the Senate Majority leader is a largely unreconstructed racist. We’re less surprised, and less embarrassed, than our friends on the other side, but we shouldn’t be, and mustn’t act, less outraged.

Second, the view that race relations are Topic A is a reasonable view. (Why, it happens that I hold it myself.) And from the viewpoint of that public purpose, having Lott lose his job for letting his robes and hood show once too often would constitute a major victory. It may well be long out of the voters’ minds by 2004, but politicians won’t forget it that soon, if ever. As Voltaire said, the English have found it advisable to hang an admiral from time to time, “pour encourager les autres.” The memory of Trent Lott’s fall will encourage a scrupulous avoidance of racial appeals by Republicans.

Granted, all is not lost if Lott hangs on to his job. I think this incident may be to flirting with racism what Gary Hart’s cruise was to flirting with bimbos. Reporters, having been sensitized to the issue, will now be watching more closely. But his political survival would still be a blow. The Democrats should make it clear that they will make the Republicans play a terrible price for not dumping Lott. If I were in the Senate, I would be saying, “The choice of the Republican leader is up to the Republicans, and it’s not for Democrats to give them advice. But if they choose to keep Senator Lott, knowing what they, and we, now know, that will send a terrible message to the entire country, and both members of this body and the voters will have to decide whether a party of which Senator Lott is the leader deserves to be in the majority.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com