GOP right long frustrated with Lott

Lott flounders - not just because of his words, but because his tenure has disappointed conservatives.

Even before his racially charged remark heard round the world, Trent Lott was no favorite with some of the nation's most vocal conservatives, who are now lobbing the biggest boulders to hasten his ouster.

Yes, they don't like the fact that a careless remark at a birthday party could fling open half a century of Republican Party history on race. Yes, it would have been better to use the weeks before a new Congress convenes to talk about how the GOP will use its hard-won control of the Senate.

But the real beef against the man now slated to be Senate majority leader is that he has never been the tough fighter for their goals that many conservatives wanted on Capitol Hill.

"The main concern is that Trent Lott is not a good messenger for the conservative message and the Republican Party," says David Boaz of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "For all of Trent Lott's conservative rhetoric, we don't see him opposing very many government programs. We see him making deals to see that Mississippi is included in these programs."

Such comments reflect how deep concerns about Lott run in conservative beltway circles. The think tanks and other groups that do the heavy lifting for Republicans in campaign seasons resent the insider politics they see as dominating Congress once voting day is over. Lott is not a leader of any part of what these activists call the "center-right coalition."

"He's not a leader for us on taxes, pro-life, or guns. He's just a vote," says a leading conservative activist. "He thinks and acts like a parochial Mississippi politician."

This is not to say Lott's ouster is assured. The personal loyalties, accommodations, and deals that make up a good insider game on Capitol Hill may yet save Lott's job. Wednesday, GOP senators including Ted Stevens of Alaska, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania expressed their support for Lott and said he would prevail.

Still, the opposition to Lott has more on the right has become concerted.

While the Congressional Black Caucus called for Lott's censure, not his resignation, top conservative groups early on signaled they wanted him out. On Dec. 10, before the tempest over Lott had reached full force, the Family Research Council blasted him for reinforcing "the false stereotype that white conservatives are racists at heart."

"Republicans ought to ask themselves ... should the GOP look to a new Senate leader who is not encumbered by this unnecessary baggage," said Ken Connor, president of the council, a key advocacy group on conservative social policy.

The group had hoped that under Lott, the Senate would do more on abortion, a ban on human cloning, pro-marriage welfare reform, and permanent tax relief for families.

Many conservatives welcomed Lott's rise to Senate leadership in 1996. They hoped that Lott, an ally of Newt Gingrich during his years in the House, would bring to the Senate the same take-no-prisoners style that fired up the GOP insurgency that wrested control away from the Democrats in 1994.

They were disappointed.

During Lott's five years as majority leader from 1996 until the defection of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords in June 2001, he appeared to be repeatedly rolled by President Clinton or the Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle: outmaneuvered on the 1997 chemical weapons treaty, on the 1998 budget deal, on the Clinton impeachment, and on a power-sharing deal with the Democrats after the 2000 elections. As minority leader, Lott was blamed for not doing more to derail the Democratic version of corporate-accountability legislation or to get a vote on a human-cloning ban.

Some of that might have been overlooked had Lott taken a higher profile promoting conservative issues. But, like his GOP predecessor Bob Dole, he spent time consumed with insider politics.

The subsequent rounds of explanations and apologies have only deepened conservative disaffection with Lott, especially a half-hour interview with Black Entertainment Television on Monday night, in which Lott repudiated much of his own record on civil rights and promised to "do things differently."

"It's so terribly sad this desperate desire to gain approval from Black Entertainment Television. The issues that they are accusing him of taking the wrong stand on are very complicated," says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights.

With high profile issues on race coming up both in Congress and in federal courts, conservatives don't want a leader who is compromised - or likely to compromise - on race.

"We need leadership than can think clearly and doesn't have to check with the mainstream civil rights organizations to see if his or her positions are morally OK," Ms. Thernstrom adds.

Meanwhile, Democrats are keeping a relatively low profile on the Lott controversy, which they say will make it more difficult for President Bush to advance an agenda on issues that may carry racial connotations.

"At the moment, Democrats don't see any particular need to raise alarm bells. The Republicans are doing that quite nicely themselves," says Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council.

While Senate Republicans have set Jan. 6 as a decision point on Lott's future, many in the GOP hope it will be resolved sooner. Should Lott lose the leadership job and opt to resign from the Senate, Mississippi's Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, would name his replacement, likely returning the Senate to a 50-50 split until a special election is held next November. A resignation before year end would trigger a special election in 90 days.

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