Traditional Values, GOP-Style

Bush talks a good game on race, but the presence in his party of a Jim Crow relic like Trent Lott mocks his words -- and the GOP's future

By Howard Gleckman

The foundation of the GOP's success over the past four decades was what Richard Nixon called his "Southern strategy" -- an appeal to the once-Democratic blue-collar voters who fled their party in reaction to the strong civil rights push of the 1960s. A generation later, Republicans still dominate Southern politics, in part thanks to a more subtle -- but still very real -- message on race. But that's no longer enough to assure national victories in a country roughly split among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

The challenge for the GOP has become reaching out to younger swing voters without abandoning that base. Race is not an issue for many of those key voters -- or for many new Republican activists. They embrace the GOP's low-tax, antigovernment message. But they disdain its old-style social agenda. And while President Bush seems comfortable with this new politics, much of his party is struggling with the transformation.


  In many ways, that's what the controversy over embattled Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is about. It began on Dec. 5 when, in a tribute to retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott waxed nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow. When Lott said the country would have been better off had it elected Thurmond as President in 1948, he was embracing the views of a man whose political career was built on race-baiting. Lott's trip down memory lane took him to a place where blacks could not vote, where they were prohibited from eating or drinking in public with whites, and where they could not attend decent schools.

Lott has apologized repeatedly, and Bush last week said "recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country." But as long as Lott remains the Senate GOP leader, his words will hang there -- an ugly memory. That's why, although Democrats say they want Lott to resign as GOP leader, secretly, they probably don't. They would much prefer to turn him into the next Newt Gingrich -- a poster child for a harsh conservatism that undermines Bush's claims of compassion.

It is the last image White House spinmeisters want at a time when Bush is calling for another tax cut skewed to the wealthy, cuts in spending for social programs, and conservative judges -- some of whose own civil-rights records are as hostile to blacks as Lott's.


  One reason Bush is so appealing to Americans is the image of great inclusion he has so skillfully presented. As a candidate and as President, he has worked hard to make all voters believe he's open to their support -- an idea that, among other things, is very good politics.

To be fair, a part of Bush really believes in the "big tent" Republican Party that welcomes women, blacks, and Hispanics -- not just white men. And when it comes to economic policy, he sees a party that attracts entrepreneurs as well as the 19th-hole crowd.

His choices for his retro economic team reflect another side of the old GOP -- one that may also fail to appeal to swing voters. Facing a sluggish economy, Bush has turned to the lime-green-pants brigade for help.

Take his pick for Treasury Secretary, CSX CEO John Snow. Until his appointment, Snow was not only a member of a country club (Augusta National, but that's another story) but he actually had his own links. The overstuffed Greenbrier Hotel, where old money has long gone to enjoy the West Virginia mountains, is a subsidiary of CSX, kept around in part so Snow could wine and dine his corporate and political pals.


  Snow provided little value to CSX shareholders -- its stock grossly underperformed the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index for the past decade. But he took home a juicy compensation package, including fat paychecks, a forgiven $24 million loan, and a sweet golden parachute.

Even many conservatives deride Snow as a corprocrat. Does Bush really want such an Old Money face on his economic agenda? Will he inspire confidence in the economy? Or will he seem much too Seventies for the young, middle-class swing voters Republicans are so anxious to woo?

Lott conjures echoes of police dogs and colored-only restrooms. Snow may remind too many of Manhattans and cozy pre-Enron boardrooms. There's no reason to believe they have anything in common on the heated matter of race. But neither is likely to help the GOP retool itself into the party that President Bush says he wants.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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