In the summer of 1999, Trent Lott cut what seemed like a fair good deal with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. For weeks, Democrats had been holding up the Senate's work on a number of appropriations bills--bills the GOP hoped would force Bill Clinton to make politically treacherous decisions about tax cuts and spending. So, in exchange for Daschle's promise to let the appropriations bills move forward, Lott allowed Democrats to bring up 20 amendments to a soon-to-be-debated HMO reform bill.
Conservatives were apoplectic. Despite their eagerness to make Clinton sweat on tax cuts, they argued that even allowing votes on the amendments--whether or not they passed--amounted to a Judas-like betrayal; they complained that Lott had "given away the store." Many even took to referring to Lott derisively as Daschle's "assistant majority leader."
It is by now an open secret that if Lott doesn't survive the next few weeks as majority leader, his views on racial integration will only have been a proximate cause. His more serious offense will be what conservatives have for years viewed as his weak commitment to their ideological agenda. As National Review fumed when it called for Lott's head after the Republicans' disappointing midterm showing in 1998, "Conservatives should encourage [Oklahoma Senator Don] Nickles to make the--admittedly risky--challenge against Lott. Someone must be held responsible for the continued drift of the congressional party." Regarding the current controversy, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol recently told the Los Angeles Times, "If [Lott] were an effective leader or personally popular, he would have weathered this easily."
But, while it's true that Lott isn't the most popular senator around, he is clearly a conservative--as reliable a vote against partial-birth abortion, gun control, and (surprise!) hate-crimes legislation as you'll find in the Senate. And, though one can imagine a more skilled politician faring marginally better in his backroom dealings with Senate Democrats, it's tough to imagine how Machiavelli himself could have accomplished much without making some real concessions. After all, the rules of the Senate make it practically impossible to push any measure through a closely divided chamber without compromise. Which begs the question, is it Lott that conservatives hate so much? Or is it the role of Senate majority leader itself?
Some of the epithets conservatives toss at Lott today sound remarkably similar to those they once used to describe Bob Dole and Howard Baker, the only other two Republican Senate majority leaders of the modern conservative era. Though Baker had loyally shepherded Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and defense buildup through the Senate--earning him the designation of "spear carrier" for Reagan's agenda--conservatives never forgave him for brokering the deal in 1978 that ceded control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Nor did they appreciate Baker's foot-dragging on controversial social issues, such as constitutional amendments to ban abortion and school busing, and in favor of school prayer. After announcing early in 1981 that he would delay consideration of these measures to focus on the president's economic agenda--which was going to require all the goodwill he could muster--a coalition of conservative activists released a statement saying, "It is shocking that Sen. Baker would ask the many Members of Congress who ran on the `social issue' agenda to now do nothing and violate their promises to their constituencies."
The right considered the harder-nosed Dole a refreshing change when he succeeded Baker in 1985. The New York Times noted that July that "conservatives seem rejuvenated these days, and one of the key reasons is Senator Dole." "He's willing to bring up these items he knows we've fought for over the years,'' Orrin Hatch gushed to the paper, referring to Dole's promise to push for constitutional amendments giving the president a line-item veto and requiring a balanced budget, issues dear to conservative hearts.
But, as with Baker, Dole had long since fallen out of favor by the time he left the Senate. When Dole, who had prided himself on his deficit-hawk credentials, questioned whether the Senate would accept the $245 billion tax cut that House Republicans were pushing in 1995, conservatives showered him with scorn, going so far as to label him the "tax collector for the welfare state." And conservatives became furious during the internal GOP debate over welfare reform, when Dole's longtime chief of staff, Sheila Burke, whom the Kansas senator had deputized to negotiate a deal, initially balked at a provision that would have punished out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
Throughout the early '90s, Lott was frequently touted as an alternative to the wayward Dole. "Back-bench Republican senators, unhappy with Minority Leader Robert J. Dole's handling of health care and Whitewater, are proposing that a reluctant Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi challenge him for re-election as leader," Bob Novak reported in 1994. And, as he ran for the majority leader post in 1996, Lott seemed well-positioned to avoid Dole's fate. "Lott used to be extremely popular with the conservatives. Not only did he vote right, he spoke out," recalls one conservative activist.
But Lott proved to be no more successful than his predecessors at satisfying conservatives once he actually got the job. Some believe he suffered even more because of the expectations that greeted his ascendance. "Since Lott came from the conservative wing of the party, the expectation to perform was much higher," says a Republican lobbyist. Whatever the case, Lott's honeymoon was brief. By early 1997, conservatives were screaming bloody murder that Lott was dealing with the Clinton administration on the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty ratified under his stewardship. Heritage Foundation founder Paul Weyrich even compared Lott's handling of the issue to Baker's betrayal on the Panama Canal 20 years earlier. Then, that fall, conservatives began their annual moaning over Republican budget negotiations with the White House and claimed Lott was selling them out. By 1998, they were so upset with Lott's budget backsliding that they demanded a task force to advise him on how not to get rolled by the White House. In 1999, conservatives piled on when Lott failed to beat back a measure to require background checks for sales at gun shows, which narrowly passed the Senate.
Certainly a more skillful leader might have avoided some of these pitfalls. But, in retrospect, Lott's political instincts have saved conservatives from themselves more often than not. In 1998, House conservatives argued that Lott should have forced another government shutdown rather than compromise with Clinton on the budget. But surely another shutdown would have only hurt Republicans, as it did in 1995-1996. Likewise, conservatives worked themselves into a lather over Lott's early reluctance to flog Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky during the 1998 campaign--and, more amazingly, over his decision to soft-sell Senate impeachment proceedings after the election. Given what we know about how big a loser the issue was for Republicans--arguably costing them five seats in the House--it seems there could hardly have been a worse idea.
Lott's problems, it turns out, didn't have to do with his effectiveness as a leader, at least not by any objective measure, so much as a structural feature of the conservative movement. Lott, Dole, Baker--it has never really mattered. The right wing of the Republican Party is simply incapable of accepting the kind of compromises a Senate majority leader must make. Dole understood this before anyone. "Give [Lott] a year up there, and people will say I was a right-winger," Dole reportedly told his friend, former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, according to an article in The American Prospect.
Part of the problem for Lott--and, for that matter, any Republican leader--is that, unlike interest groups on the left, which tend to accept the transactional nature of government, many movement conservatives have a genuinely coherent worldview they want to see reflected--in its entirety. The National Organization for Women is content to derail an anti-abortion judicial nominee; the trial lawyers are happy if they can beat back tort reform; labor wants to impose restrictions on trade. But no one group cares enough about the others' issues to go to the mat for them, giving a savvy legislator like Tom Daschle room to assemble a coalition of support in any given debate. Movement conservatives like Gary Bauer, on the other hand, by definition aren't satisfied to simply see the Chemical Weapons Convention defeated or see a ban on partial-birth abortions. Losing on any issue is enough to rouse their anger.
To make things even more difficult for a Republican leader, this ideological cohesion is reinforced by a level of practical coordination unmatched by anything on the left. Of course there are divisions among conservatives--for example, between social conservatives and economic libertarians. But by and large, says conservative activist Grover Norquist, "Nobody on the right wants anything at the expense of anyone else on the right. ... We can all agree to leave each other alone." That helps explain why, over the last three decades, conservatives have been able to create institutions that fuse the different factions into a single movement: think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, magazines like The American Spectator. Meanwhile, activists like Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform hosts a weekly meeting of corporate lobbyists and social conservatives called the "Wednesday Group," and Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director famous for putting his grassroots evangelical network in the service of corporate interests, bring together the different factions in ways that maximize their overall strength. The downside for a party leader is that when one element of the coalition is unhappy, it quickly infects the others.
And Republican leaders have suffered from the demands of the right ever more intensely, ironically, as conservatives have gotten their way. The more the conservative agenda becomes either mainstream or law--welfare reform, vouchers, the Bush tax cut, Social Security privatization--the further to the right conservatives typically have to move in search of new ideas--medical savings accounts and, most recently, raising taxes on the poor. These days, conservatives have moved further toward the fringe intellectually, but they remain near the height of their power politically. It's not hard to see how that would put a Republican leader in a nearly impossible position when it came time to get results.
Of course, these constraints apply to anyone who governs from the right, not just the Republican Senate leader. Even Newt Gingrich, just four years earlier considered the darling of the conservative movement, was hounded out of office in late 1998 in part because his supporters deemed him too soft. But, in the House, it's at least possible to ram through your agenda with a paper-thin majority. In the Senate, by contrast, you need 60 votes to get anything done, and the modern Republican Party has never enjoyed that luxury. For its part, a Republican White House has so many ways to appease conservatives other than legislation--appointments, executive orders, foreign policy--that it rarely finds itself feeling the brunt of conservative frustration. But the only tool available to a Senate leader intent on soothing hard feelings is pork--which, needless to say, is not exactly the best way to appease the anti-government crowd. Just ask Lott, who in 1998 received a Citizens Against Government Waste "Oinker" award for his troubles. "Mr. Lott's main contribution so far as Senate leader has been to deliver pork to Mississippi," The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot complained that year.
As Lott's grip on his job has grown increasingly tenuous over the last couple of days, guessing his eventual successor has naturally become Washington's semi-official parlor game. The names of up-and-coming Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, Pennsylvania conservative Rick Santorum, and incoming Majority Whip Mitch McConnell have all been thrown around as potential candidates. But so far the only person to indicate any interest in taking the job is Don Nickles, Lott's longtime whip, who ruffled some feathers last week with what some saw as his rank opportunism. In fact, these hard feelings are frequently cited as a threat to Nickles's ambitions. But maybe that's a little shortsighted. Why would Republicans want to give the job to anyone they felt warmly about?
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.