The immediate threat to Republicans from the Trent Lott crisis has passed. But the Democrats, of course, have tried to use the scandal to cast a wider net: the supposed weakness of Republicans in general on the issue of race.
But it is important to understand precisely what, if any, real weakness there is. I suggest that there is more of an opportunity here for the Republicans, especially President Bush, than meets the eye. In order to take advantage of that opportunity, however, it is important to understand the ground upon which the battle over race is being waged.
It is true that Republicans routinely win no more than 10% of the black vote and barely more than 30% of the Hispanic vote. Conservative analysts such as Michael Barone and Daniel Griswold, among others, have argued that these numbers can realistically be increased by offering benefits and programs for those particular groups. President's Bush's "compassionate conservatism" seems to endorse this idea.
But as UPI analyst Steve Sailer has noted, the recent Republican win was really the result of two factors. First, as it normally does, the party received a sizable majority of the white vote, but perhaps even larger than in 2000. Second, the number of minority voters, blacks most importantly, dropped somewhat from the previous midterm election.
Sailer highlights the obvious but sometimes overlooked fact that the white vote is four times the size of the minority vote. He observes that "tiny changes in a party's performance among whites can easily outweigh in importance sizable changes among nonwhites." One could easily argue that Republicans ought not to concentrate on minority voters, but rather should emphasize issues that will invigorate the white vote.
But what does it mean to invigorate the white vote? The answer is not Lott's apparent endorsement of the racially-segregated past. In fact, it is just the opposite.
The most important fact of electoral politics in the last forty years has been the rise of the GOP in the South. Southerners began to shift to the party after the Democrats lurched to the left in the 1960s on many issues, including race. Trent Lott was part of that shift. But his comments implied that nothing has happened on the issue of race in America since then. Some Republicans seems to think that the Southern white allegiance still hangs on some vague racial prejudice. This would mean that the main strength of the party — the white vote in the South — is actually a liability to Republicans.
But the South is no such liability. Studies have shown quite clearly that the region is strongly Republican because of issues like abortion, gun rights, and national defense. Racism or a desire for segregation plays no real role in the Republican advantage, in the South or elsewhere. Indeed, the chorus against Lott proves one thing: racism is simply illegitimate in America.
The danger of fiascos like the Lott affair is not that the GOP will lose part of the minority vote, but that it will suppress or lose some part of the white vote that is rightly offended by what Lott implied. Despite the protestations of the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, white America on the whole is not racist. In keeping with that fact, Republicans would be smart to embrace unequivocally the idea of a colorblind society.
But the Republicans must do more than assert race neutrality. They should not, for example, merely condemn affirmative action as unfair to whites. That opens them to the charge of being indifferent to the legacy of slavery and segregation. Republicans must explain that racial preferences today, like racial segregation forty years ago, offend America's basic principle of equality.
Most of those voters agree with Charles Krauthammer's view that "the civil rights movement rose above sectarianism and insisted on defining itself far more broadly as a vindication of America's very purpose." Indeed, the greatness of that movement derived from its validation of "America's original promise of freedom and legal equality."
Republicans should look to this legacy. But forcing Lott out is not enough. President Bush rightly asserted that, "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals." The president should now affirm those ideals by moving to abolish affirmative action in his own administration. The party of Lincoln, then, would take a great step toward validating "America's original promise."