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December 20, 2002 -- Jeff Gannon: Stop Talking!

It has been announced that Senate Republicans will meet on January 6 to discuss what has become a crisis in their leadership. Until that time, Republican leaders should stop talking about the Trent Lott matter.

What will fill the media vacuum about this story will be the voices of those who want to keep the issue alive: the Democrats. In the past week, the debate over this situation has reached absurd proportions. The demand for punishment has grown from censure to resignation to removal. The rhetoric has become shrill and the finger pointing indiscriminate.

For a solid week, The New York Times has been relentless in its attacks on Lott, George W. Bush and the Republican Party. On Sunday, CNN's Final Edition featured columnist Julianne Malveaux who declared that Lott "just took the sheet off his head and made it clear what kind of Klan member he is." The leaders of many African-American organizations came together on Monday to call for the ouster of Lott. During CNN's Talk Back Live the same day, radio host Tom Joyner repeatedly called Lott a racist.

The charges have become more vicious, outlandish and reckless. Julian Bond and Elijah Cummings among others are reading from the same flawed page when they criticize the Republicans for "putting a man like Lott" fourth in line to the presidency. In fact, the line of succession puts the President Pro Tempore of the Senate in that position. That person is Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Democrat and unrepentant former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Last year, it was Byrd who used the "N-word" in a televised interview with Fox News interview. Neither a denouncement of him nor a call for resignation or censure was forthcoming. These are minor details not to be considered while the destruction of Trent Lott is in progress.

Those at the forefront of this political witch-hunt will need to continue turning up the volume against the silence. A lack of response from Republican ranks will require them to keep this fire stoked for several weeks among themselves and their media patrons. In they meantime, they will also need to secure the active support of the balance of the party. They have already blasted the Democratic Party leadership for not responding earlier and sufficiently loud.

A singular focus on this particular issue may cause a schism within the party. They will need to decide how much political capital they are willing to spend to dislodge Lott, as substantial energy will be required to sustain the necessary moral outrage until January. A fractured Democratic Party may not be up to it.

African-Americans are undeniably an important Democratic constituency, but they do not constitute a majority. A grateful Mary Landrieu called them "the soul of the Democratic Party", but the reality is that while Democrats receive the black vote 90% of the time, turnout is always a concern. Their indifference was a reason cited for the Democrats' poor performance in November. White Democrats, on the other hand, are unlikely to rally around a cause that has such a limited upside.

Still more difficult will be to portray Trent Lott as a rabid segregationist and racist, as it simply doesn't match the image of the public person. Lott will need to be demonized to the same degree as Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan were for this issue to have any legs. An overreach has the potential to backfire on the Democrats in the same way that Clinton's impeachment proceedings did on the Republicans. After all, the party of Byrd and Hollings has its own history yet to acknowledge.

By the time the Senate conference meets on Jan 6, the furor will have subsided and the Democrats may be embroiled in the kind of infighting that they do so well.


Jeff Gannon

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