Let me be clear. I do think that Trent Lott is a bigot. In a perfect world, he'd have been ousted in the late 1990s when revelations surfaced about his unseemly involvement with the neo-Confederate Council of Conservative Citizens.
But Trent Lott serves in the U.S. Senate, an exclusive club where the collegial atmosphere causes otherwise smart people to give one another benefits of doubts to a fault. And so it's taken yet another ugly public dustup for the incestuous Beltway media/politico/pundit circle to finally sit up and take notice of Trent Lott's uglier, prejudiced inclinations (I'm still waiting for them to take notice of Sen. Robert Byrd's).
I'd like to see Republicans take a principled stand and vote Trent Lott out of his leadership position because his opinions on race are intolerable, because the leader of the United States Senate ought not to be a man who ponders wistfully about segregation while in comfortable company.
I'd like to see Republicans vote Trent Lott out of the leadership because he has forged alliances with shady "Southern heritage" organizations that spout racist acid behind the guise of "state's rights" and "federalism" -- acts I find all the more damning because I consider myself to be both an advocate of state's rights and a federalist.
I think Trent Lott should be ousted from his leadership position because he's been unforthcoming about his past. He should have known that his efforts to keep his fraternity and his university segregated would surface after his remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party grew the legs of scandal. Yet he said nothing of them.
But I'm not delusional. None of that is going to happen. The best we can hope is that the Republicans choose a new leader out of pragmatism -- a convenient out that allows them to say "we don't think Lott's a racist, but the whole imbroglio has made him unfit to lead."
So allow me to lay out that position.
If Trent Lott remains majority leader for the 108th Congress, you can bet the plantation that the Democrats will couch every contentious piece of legislation that crosses Trent Lott's desk in terms as racially incendiary as possible. You know how this works.
"Support funding increases for the Department of Education, or you hate poor black children in the inner city who need an education."
"Support set-asides of federal contracts for minority-owned firms, or you're opposed to the idea that minorities should own firms."
With Trent Lott in the majority leader's office, expect more of the same, only worse.
Tax cuts, for example, will no longer be framed in typical Democrat "rich vs. poor" class warfare rhetoric. They'll now be framed in "poor/black vs. rich/white" class/race rhetoric.
I suppose it's possible that Trent Lott might hold his ground, that he wouldn't compromise, and that he'd refrain from caving to such manipulation. But that would yield even more race-fueled contention. Protests and boycotts would follow, and the most racially divisive presidential campaign we've ever seen would come in 2004. The last thing this country needs is yet another excuse for an injection of racial animosity into its politics.
But the more likely scenario sees Trent Lott folding to the demands of his critics. He's already started. On his BET television appearance he expressed his support for affirmative action "across the board." That's likely only the beginning of his capitulation.
That means more federal programs, more set-asides and the further postponement of the day when the United States can finally embrace color-blind government.
Both scenarios are ugly, to say the least.
In short, Trent Lott's comments -- and, more importantly, his failure to grasp the seriousness of them -- have rendered him politically impotent.
There is, for example, a case to be made against affirmative action that's completely free of bigotry or animus toward African-Americans. But after the events of the last two weeks, Trent Lott can't make it.
There is a case to be made for continuing the success of welfare reform that's completely free of the racially charged rhetoric, but after the events of the last two weeks, Trent Lott can't make it.
There is a bigotry-free case to be made that government ought to get out of the business of race-based bean counting and monitoring the hiring practices of private firms, but after the events of the last two weeks, Trent Lott can't make it.
There is a bigotry-free case to be made that federal statutes aimed at reducing hate crimes come dangerously close to thought-policing, that they're thinly veiled attempts to outlaw politically incorrect opinion. But after the events of the last two weeks, Trent Lott can't make it.
In short, Trent Lott can't articulate any position that runs contrary to the stated goals of the self-proclaimed civil rights leaders because each time he does, those leaders will immediately question his motives, and the motives of the Republican Party.
Of course, self-proclaimed civil rights leaders have always questioned the motives of Republicans.
But if the Republicans retain Trent Lott as their leader, it will be a bit different this time.
This time, the self-proclaimed civil rights leaders will be right.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.