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Jewish World Review Dec. 23, 2002 / 18 Teves, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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GOP must stick to its principles: 10 questions for ... Bill Kristol | Trent Lott, as you can't help but know, is stepping down as Republican leader of the U.S. Senate. The Mississippi senator was under attack by some of his friends and enemies in both parties, and is simultaneously being defended by some of his other friends and enemies in both parties, for seeming to be soft on segregation.

It started Dec. 5 when Lott told his very old pal Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat who ran for president as a racial segregationist in 1948, that if the rest of the country had voted for Thurmond, as Lott's home state did, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."

OK, so that's not the brightest thing for anyone to say in public in 2002, or any year - especially if you are an important leader of a political party that touts itself as color-blind on racial issues.

But was Lott, as his nastiest attackers infer, really pining for the days of Jim Crow? Was he subliminally lamenting the civil rights movement that ended the South's apartheid? Or was it an innocent gaffe made while being nice to a 100-year-old man?

To get one expert's Inside-the-Beltway assessment of Lott's fate and the damage his racial remarks have caused the GOP, I called Bill Kristol, the savvy editor of The Weekly Standard, America's flagship of neoconservatism. I talked to him Wednesday afternoon, when Lott still had his job.

Kristol was prescient.

Q: Is Trent Lott toast?

A: I think so. I don't think a majority of his colleagues want him to continue serving as Republican leader, so I think one way or the other, they will depose him.

Q: Do you think he will be gone by the time people read this Saturday morning?

A: I rather think so. He's hanging in there and fighting. A lot of his colleagues apparently don't have the nerve to tell him privately, directly, or to say publicly that he should go. So it could drag on through Christmas until the actual Republican conference meeting on Jan. 6. But if had to bet, I would bet that he will be gone this week.

Q: Do you think he is being treated fairly or unfairly by the media, the Democrats and his own party?

A: Well, the media is never fair. The Democrats are not supposed to be fair to Republicans, I suppose, so it would be too much to expect them to be fair.

I think Republicans have to make a hardheaded judgment. Do they want Trent Lott for their leader for the next two years? I personally think they shouldn't and that he isn't the best person to be their leader. That doesn't mean he needs to be run out of town or tarred and feathered. It just means he shouldn't be the Republican leader in the Senate.

Conservatives need to take account of the fact that there is a liberal bias in the media and if they say something foolish, either apologize quickly or firmly or defend what they said. But Lott has handled it about as badly as one could.

Q: It sounds like you are not happy with his stint as the leader?

A: I'm neither particularly happy nor particularly unhappy with him as leader. He's been adequate, nothing great. But I wouldn't have been leading any effort to get rid of him, certainly, if he hadn't said what he said - which I really do regard as a bad statement and something Republicans need to repudiate.

Q: You don't consider it an innocent blunder, a gaffe?

A: No. To say something nice about Thurmond, even to say, "My state voted for you, Strom, and I'm happy about it," wouldn't have occasioned much comment. It didn't, in fact.

It's the subsequent sentence that is really startling. It does seem to imply an endorsement of the Dixiecrat agenda of 1948, which needs to be repudiated. Especially given all the allegations that some Republicans, or some parts of the Republican Party, descend from the southern Dixiecrat Party and movement. I think that needs to be firmly repudiated.

Q: Can you give a summary of how the GOP is split between Reagan conservatives, neoconservatives and moderate conservatives?

A: Well, I consider myself a Reagan conservative. I came to Washington to work for Reagan. In foreign policy I wrote an article titled, "Toward a Reaganite Foreign Policy," so I consider myself a Reagan conservative.

I think a lot of neoconservatives do consider themselves Reagan conservatives. I would actually say that Trent Lott is more of a Nixon conservative - a Southern strategy-type Republican.

There are an awful lot of factions in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement, and that's not a bad thing. This is a big country and it's ludicrous to pretend that everyone is going to come to their conservatism from the same philosophical perspective or have exactly the same take on all the different events of the day.

But I think this one has not broken down predictably, incidentally. There are different kinds of conservatives and Republicans calling for Lott to go and different kinds of conservatives and Republicans defending him. This seems much more of a personal judgment almost, as to how offended one is by his comments or how damaging or even dangerous one thinks his comments are to the future of the Republican Party.

Q: After reading Time and Newsweek's cover stories on Lott, I was amazed at how un-conservative Lott seemed to be. Now he's saying on Black Entertainment TV that he's is favor of affirmative action. He's for tax cuts, but that's about all. He's a big welfare guy, a big pork guy. I guess that fits under your previous statement that there's a pretty big tent for all kinds of Republicans.

A: Yeah. I don't think Lott's a conservative hero. On the other hand, he's not been off from the conservatives either. He's been a mediocre Republican leader in my view, but again, that's not why he should go. Why he should go is because what he said.

Q: Who would you like to see become No. 1 man?

A: I don't know. I think well of several of the possibilities. I don't honestly know.

Q: Does it matter who this third most powerful Republican in the country is?

A: Not too much. George W. Bush will be on the ballot in 2004 and he's the leader of the Republican Party. It matters in terms of tactics and mechanics in getting legislation through the Senate. It matters somewhat in terms of the public image of the party, especially with Lott having said what he said. It's not the end of the world, either way, obviously. It matters somewhat, but it matters a lot less because there is a Republican president, obviously.

Q: Is this a short-term Republican problem and do you think it will become a long-term benefit if Lott is gone?

A: Yeah, it's only a short-term problem and I think it goes away if Lott leaves. I even would argue that it could become a kind of benefit.

Now, if the party gets spooked and decides that it has to capitulate to liberals on all kinds of issues, because of what Sen. Lott said, that would be the worst outcome possible. Of course, Sen. Lott himself has been doing this for the last few days.

But if the party removes Lott, but says we stand against racial preferences, we stand against big-government liberalism, we're sticking to our principles - but our principles are not racially tinged or motivated - I think that's a good outcome.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald