Method to GOP Madness in Lott Rehab

Trent Lott, the new Senate Minority Whip! At first glance it seemed the Republicans had gone completely over the cuckoos nest when they narrowly voted to elevate the once disgraced Lott to Republican second in command in the Senate.

The memory is still fresh of the national firestorm that Lott set off four years ago with his tout of segregation, and his decades long hard line opposition to any thing that smacked of expanding civil rights and civil liberties protections, and his snuggle up to unreconstructed Southern bigots and far rightist groups.

The Lott rehab seems like the exact wrong thing that the GOP could do to right its course after the wreck of the midterm debacle. But GOP leaders had something else in mind with Lott, and that gives a strong hint of just where the GOP is headed in Congress and how it will play the 2008 elections.

After his election as minority whip, Lott moved quickly to burnish his image as a statesman-like, lower-keyed, less inflammatory, and polarizing leader, He deftly deflected questions from reporters about his role in the Senate. He benignly told them that the spotlight belongs on the GOP Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. But Lott's voting record tells the real story. While much has been made of his horrid two-decade Senate record in torpedoing and obstructing civil rights legislation, in the years that he drifted quietly in the GOP and Senate wilderness after his fall, he remained the same hard line opponent and obstructionist to moderate reform legislation.

He voted for the House's punitive immigration bill, a constitutional amendment to ban the flag desecration, for the failed anti-gay marriage amendment, voted to meat ax billions from welfare, child support and student lending programs, and to make it tougher to file class action suits against malfeasant corporations. He cheerled the confirmations of conservative Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

His penchant for backroom wheeling and dealing and his intimate knowledge of every trick in the parliamentary book, honed from his decades of Senate experience, make him the ideal one to delay, stall, and stonewall any and every effort Senate Democrats make to budge Congress toward backing an Iraq war wind down, affordable health care, shave off the punitive edges of the Patriot Act, hike spending on education and social services, strengthen environmental and labor protections, reverse some of Bush's corporate tax cut giveaways, and to help continue to ram Bush's judicial nominations through the Senate.

Lott has much greater political value to the GOP beyond his ability to frustrate Senate Democrats. The Lott rehab sends a strong signal that the GOP will do everything that it can to win back the thousands of wayward evangelicals and hard-core conservatives that strayed from the flock during the midterm elections and backed Democrats. The estimate is that one out of five white evangelicals broke ranks with the GOP out of anger, disgust and frustration with Bush's war policies and the GOP's sex and corruption scandals. A significant block of those disaffected core conservatives are Southerners. That set off especially loud warning bells in the GOP upper ranks.

The Southern Strategy has been the bread and butter for GOP presidents stretching back to Dwight Eisenhower to bag and hold the White House. The potential defection of numbers of Southern conservatives, and the boast by Democratic National Chair Howard Dean to contest the Republicans in all fifty states, poses mortal peril to the GOP's Southern Strategy.

If the Democrats can unhinge one or two Southern states from the GOP orbit that could tip the White House to them. A centrist, Border State or Southern Democratic presidential candidate ala Bill Clinton, could do that. He would be competitive with the GOP in the South especially if Arizona Senator John McCain or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is the Republican presidential candidate.

Both are considered Republican moderates and would be a much tougher sell to hard line conservatives than Bush Jr. The appointment of Florida Senator Mel Martinez to head the Republican National Committee didn't help matters. It irked some conservatives who consider Martinez too moderate and too soft on immigration. Lott is the perfect antidote to soothe their ruffled feelings and shore up the conservative credentials of a McCain or Giuliani.

During his Senate reelection campaign, Lott showed that he could still rev up a crowd, and get out the vote. He easily brushed aside his Democratic opponent. That further confirmed that Lott still has real stump value.

In decades past, GOP leaders' respectable, gray flannel suit opposition to civil rights was the big reason they were able to resuscitate the party from its century of near extinction in the Deep South and become the dominant force in national politics. Lott played a big part in that resurgence and the GOP banks that he will be a big part of their attempted resurgence in 2008.


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