Lott fallout: GOP forced to tiptoe on race

From affirmative action to tax cuts, Republicans face an altered landscape.

Whether Trent Lott stays or goes as Senate majority leader, the Republican Party has been profoundly affected by the furor over his recent comment suggesting nostalgia for racial segregation.

For both its agenda and campaign tactics, the GOP will have to bend over backward to show that it is not the party of the well-off and the white, political analysts say. Most obviously, the Bush administration's ability to challenge traditional affirmative action has been severely compromised. Witness the debate raging among presidential advisers over whether to submit a brief in a pending Supreme Court case challenging racial preferences in admissions to the University of Michigan.

If the administration opposes the Michigan program, it could fan the flames ignited by Senator Lott and further damage party efforts to attract black and Hispanic voters.

If it remains silent, it will miss a big opportunity to shape debate on affirmative action.

Other areas where the administration can expect scrutiny include judicial nominees, tax cuts, education, welfare, and healthcare. Watch for changes in the next campaign: Racially tinged strategies, typically employed in the South to appeal to whites, will no longer fly, say Republican activists. And don't expect more campaign visits to South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which bars interracial dating. "In both tone and substance, the Republican Party is going to have to do quite a bit of damage repair over the next couple of years on ... race," says a Senate Republican adviser.

Referring to the Republicans' history of opposing civil rights, the aide adds: "This whole incident has cast in stark relief the party's vulnerabilities on the issue, and has set the party back considerably on any progress it has made on race in recent years."

Not only has the party damaged its efforts to reach out to minorities, it's also hurt itself among suburban voters, for whom an image of racial tolerance is important, he says.

Even in the midterm elections, strategies with racial overtones were employed without furor. In Georgia, Sonny Perdue appealed to white voters with a promise to hold a referendum on bringing back the Confederate flag - and beat the incumbent Democratic governor. Some Republicans now say such a tactic would draw national, negative attention.

Opponents of traditional affirmative action are hoping that the administration can retake the initiative in trying to reshape how race plays in hiring, contracting, and education.

Trent Lott now promises support for affirmative action "across the board." But Bush's spokesman has highlighted a program from the president's days as Texas governor: In "affirmative access," the top 10 percent of Texas students automatically gained entrance into the University of Texas system. That program brought greater minority enrollment, says spokes-man Ari Fleischer.

Roger Clegg, general counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action, says Bush will ultimately have his administration file a brief opposing the University of Michigan program.

"It's true that the Trent Lott fiasco complicated things," says Mr. Clegg. "But I think the way this drama has played out actually puts the president in a very good position.... He can say, 'I think racial discrimination is wrong..., and for exactly that reason, my administration is filing a brief telling the Supreme Court that they should rule against racial discrimination in college admissions.' "

Not all Republicans see lasting damage to the party over the Lott mess. "Trent Lott will continue as leader, and he'll follow through on the things he's pledged - meetings with African-American leaders, pursue some policies that will help minorities - and confidence in him will be restored," says Charles Black, a veteran GOP political adviser.

"To the average American, the image of the Republican Party is defined by George Bush, not Trent Lott," says Mr. Black. "There has been outstanding outreach by the president."

Indeed, for Democrats, too, some new challenges may arise in the thicket of racial politics. And if Lott survives the challenge to his leadership, they could perhaps count him as their new and firmest ally on all matters affecting minorities. Today, Democrats appear to be riding high. But not all of their members have pristine records in their public statements. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has publicly used the N-word.

African-Americans also have to be careful not to overplay their hand by pushing for divisive policies such as reparations for slavery.

"Two groups are the whipping boys in American politics," says Hastings Wyman, editor of Southern Political Report. "One is white Southerners. The other is African-Americans. They're on the good side of everybody right now. But if the issue becomes reparations or affirmative action or O.J. Simpson, then there's an awful lot of hostility."

Silas Lee, a Democratic pollster and sociologist in Louisiana, sees an opportunity now for dialogue and a focus on more "inclusive" policies and initiatives.

"Essentially, what we want to do is take the focus away from personality and make it more on progressive policies in the economy and education. When these policies and programs affect minorities, they affect the larger society, because of the spillover in economic participation."

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