Hitting Below the Belt

It’s a little premature to feel truly sorry for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. But since he is fast moving from being a bit of a dope to the punching bag of the U.S. Senate, I guess we can take a few minutes, before he becomes a complete joke, to give his dying political career its due.
First, President Bush — who helped Frist get the job of Senate leader — asks Sen. Movie Star, former Senator Fred Thomas to help run the Judge John Roberts’ Supreme Court nomination. That was after Frist couldn’t figure out how many votes he had on John Bolton’s nomination. The answer: not enough. And that was after Sen. John McCain stepped in to the role Frist should have taken to negotiate a compromise on the filibuster and the judicial nomination process. And let’s not forget Sen. Arlen Specter and his insistence — just by showing up in all his ailing glory — that stem cell research is something the federal government out to fund. Oh yeah, and Terry Schiavo.
Now comes former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. And he ain’t happy either. Just as Frist is getting ready to return to a Senate that he leads in name only, Lott is stepping up with a new message of moderation and cooperation. It isn’t just a challenge to Frist, it’s a challenge to the White House and the way Republicans have been conducting business on Capitol Hill for the past three years.

Lott’s pitching a book – “Herding Cats: A Life in Politics” – but he’s also delivered a hard-to-miss political message. He’s not being subtle, either, starting last week with an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
That’s right. Trent Lott. On The Daily Show. Making nice over his endorsement of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s racist politics – “perhaps I overspoke myself…I was trying to make a 100-year-old-man feel good.” — with Stewart.
If you’d care to measure Jon Stewart’s authority, this is as good a yardstick as any. He really has stepped into Johnny Carson’s shoes, sifting and monitoring the culture of this country. Lott’s appearance came the same week that Stewart featured investigative journalist Seymour Hirsch and writer Christopher Hitchens. I TiVo Charlie Rose and Stewart; it’s surprising how very many guests show up in the same places. And Stewart gets from them — often in less than 10 minutes — what takes Rose a half-hour.
But that’s an aside. Here’s what Lott said — to Stewart’s audience of young, hip, sort-of Liberals: “If you’re really trying to do your job — particularly as a leader — you’re going to get hit from both the left and the right.” Frist, it’s worth noting, gets hit pretty much only from one side: The Left.
That’s a dig. And it’s not unexpected. But here’s what Lott said generally about how to get things done in Washington. It was in response to a question from Stewart about his relationship with former President Bill Clinton: “We had to work together or we got nothing. He wouldn’t get a bill to sign or I wouldn’t get a bill signed into law and therefore we found a way to work together. Frankly, that’s the way it ought to be. I think Republicans and Democrats for the interests of the people have to find a way to get things under con — get the wings to back off a little bit — the Right and the Left and see if there’s not a middle.”
That statement was followed by a few choice comments about health care, gas prices and the need to conserve energy. Not exactly White House talking points.
Now, make no mistake, Lott was getting his licks in against those who ran him out of office for his racist statements about Thurmond’s endorsement of segregation: the then-unheralded “progressive” blogosphere. But it is also a resounding blow against the far, religious right. And most importantly, it is not coming from the liberal wing of the Republican party. Lott is a moderate but he ain’t no Liberal. He doesn’t represent New York or Vermont or California. He represents Mississippi, the heart of the Bible Belt.