Race to the Exit: Politics 2002 Ends with Two Retreats-Lott's and Gore's. AS BUSH TURNS TO WAR, Democrats Must Score Points without Going Too Far

By Thomas, Evan; Clift, Eleanor | Newsweek, December 30, 2002 | Go to article overview

Race to the Exit: Politics 2002 Ends with Two Retreats-Lott's and Gore's. AS BUSH TURNS TO WAR, Democrats Must Score Points without Going Too Far


Thomas, Evan, Clift, Eleanor, Newsweek


Byline: Evan Thomas and Eleanor Clift

The White House strategy, stealthy and swift, went off without a hitch. On Friday morning, Dec. 20, President Bush was in the White House situation room for a briefing on Iraq when policy adviser Josh Bolten entered with the news: Trent Lott, the embattled Senate majority leader, had stepped down. After a futile two-week struggle to hang on to his job, Lott made the decision to call it quits on Thursday night, after he began receiving call after call from influential Senate Republicans telling him they no longer supported him. One by one, they lined up behind Sen. Bill Frist, the rising star of the Senate and a good friend of President Bush, who had let it be known that he wanted to replace Lott as majority leader. For the record, Bush claimed it was fine with him if Lott kept his position, but no one really believed that Bush meant it, or that Lott could survive for long. Until Friday it seemed that Lott was the only one in the country who hadn't gotten the message that it was time for him to go. As one Republican strategist told NEWSWEEK: "I don't know what else we can do short of putting a horse head in his bed."

Dickens may be more appropriate to the season than Puzo. The year in politics 2002 ended with the departure of both Democratic and Republican Ghosts of Christmas Past. After a witty performance on "Saturday Night Live" (the "Meet the Press" of pop culture), Al Gore announced he would not run in 2004, and seven days after taking his stand in Mississippi, Lott resigned as majority leader. (Lott didn't bother telling the White House before he quit--his way of snubbing the president for the shabby way he felt he was treated.) The question for the new year is whether Bush can remain ascendant without appearing arrogant--and whether the Democrats can define differences without seeming divisive.

On Dec. 5, Lott had amiably declared that if only segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." In one foolishly grinning moment, Lott cast light on a dark streak in the Republican past, the party's history of playing on racial fear to win votes.

With Lott out of the spotlight (though still in the Senate), Bush hopes to turn attention to his own evident political strengths. His approval rating is holding at about 65 percent, a very high number for a modern president. For the first time in a half century, his party controls both the executive and legislative branches of government. When Bush threatens to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein fails to come clean on his WMD arsenal, he does not seem to be bluffing. The onetime feckless fraternity boy who had to struggle to prove his legitimacy after barely winning a disputed election two years ago is now being exalted--or decried--for restoring the Imperial Presidency.

He may, of course, overplay his hand. Bush's global ambitions are so grand--rolling back the forces of tyranny and terror in the cause of liberty and democracy, striking first if necessary--that imperial overstretch seems a real risk. A war in Iraq could backfire or become a trap. While Bush presses his Pax Americana on the world, the American economy could drift or dive. And old ghosts, like the Republicans' racist past, could come back to haunt.

Republican elders and activists were eager to put distance between the party and Lott's apparent nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow. …

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