“Nickles Seeks Lott’s Ouster,” blared the Washington Post’s lead headline Monday morning. “GOP Agenda at Risk, Senator Says.”
The good news is not that Senate Republicans have decided that their Majority Leader must go – but that there is a GOP agenda at all. From the way in which the Republicans and their neo-conservative allies have responded to the “crisis” created by Sen. Trent Lott’s positive remarks about Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist presidential campaign, you would not necessarily know there was.
The initial reaction to the Mississippi senator’s words from his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, seemed almost sympathetic. Mr. Daschle noted that Mr. Lott had explained himself to him, and “I accept that.”
Mr. Daschle, no fool, understands that when the Majority Leader feels the need to explain himself to the Minority Leader, it’s pretty clear who really calls the shots in the Senate.
And as the Senate goes, so went what remains of the “conservative movement,” as defined by the neo-conservatives who have come to dominate and speak for it. Almost to a man, their spokesmen damned Mr. Lott’s remarks—”disgraceful” (David Frum), “indefensible” (Jonah Goldberg), “ludicrous” (William Kristol), “appalling” (Charles Krauthammer), “shameful” (a public statement issued by four Republican appointees to the Civil Rights Commission), etc.
Neo-conservative ex-football star Jack Kemp ranted that “until [Mr. Lott] totally repudiates segregation and every aspect of its evil manifestation,” the Republicans would continue to suffer damage from his remarks. He demanded that Mr. Lott, as the Post reported,“go before a civil rights group and make a major speech about race and racial reconciliation in the New South to help clear the air.”
What is remarkable about this reaction from the “right” is that it is entirely indistinguishable from the reaction from the left—except perhaps that the left was a bit less outraged.
What the reaction of the “right” reveals is that the neo-conservatives who today have come to define the American “right” share precisely the same views as the left. And what that means is that the “right” does absolutely nothing to challenge the left. The left can “up the ante”— escalate its political demands—as far to the left as it wishes, and the “right” will tag along behind (or perhaps even run in front).
This is why there is and can be no Republican “agenda” – despite what the wannabe Majority Leaders try to claim.
There can be no Republican agenda because as long as the left defines the boundaries of American politics, any agenda the Republicans or the “right” comes up with will merely reflect what the left allows it to support. Any dissent from what the left allows will be denounced—as “racist” or some other sort of “extremism.” And you can bet your armband it will probably be the neo-conservatives who will do the denouncing.
By the middle of last week, with the neo-con pack in full bay at Mr. Lott’s heels, the left “upped the ante” a bit more. It soon became clear that the real target was not what in the most extreme interpretation was a bland and certainly unintentional endorsement of segregationism but rather the real conservative position on race and civil rights. Both the Post and the New York Times dug up Mr. Lott’s voting record and brayed the news that he had voted against the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983, against the Civil Rights Act in 1990.
Not one of these or other votes Mr. Lott has cast means he supports segregation, and he was hardly alone in casting them. What they tell us is that he has consistently embraced an authentic conservative position on these issues. Among Mr. Lott’s many sins that the Postdiscovered: In 1998 he praised Confederate President Jefferson Davis in helping dedicate a library in his honor in Mississippi and said that Davis “rightly understood [the U.S. Constitution] was created to restrain government, not constrain the people.” [text of speech.]
Having conceded the “evil manifestation” of segregation, the “right” opened the door for the left to denounce any expression of authentic conservatism—and not only by Mr. Lott.
The dominance of the American “right” by neo-conservatives—ex-liberals who continue to exude liberal premises and values but who for some reason insist on calling themselves conservatives—means that ideological hegemony is ceded to the left, that the “right” must always explain itself to and seek sanction from the left, that the “right” can and will do nothing whatsoever to challenge the left’s monopoly of politics, culture, and discussion.
What good therefore is accomplished if a Republican president sits in the White House, a Republican majority sits in Congress – and neo-conservative commentators dominate the public dialogue on television and newspapers?