WaPo Writer Laments Lott Exit; Decries 'Lost Art' of Compromise

Trent Lott, once a favored whipping boy of the mainstream media for unfortunate and poorly-worded comments at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday bash, is now being hailed by the Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman as a great statesman as he exits the U.S. Senate.

Weisman's page A4 profile, "As Lott Leaves the Senate, Compromise Appears to Be a Lost Art," paints a picture of a U.S. Senate descending into perpetual gridlock thanks to partisanship. Yet Weisman seems to lay all the blame for partisan gridlock on Republican shoulders, assigning no blame to the Democrats who now control the august deliberative body.:

States once represented by common-ground dealmakers, including John Breaux (D-La.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), are now electing ideological stalwarts, such as David Vitter (R-La.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).

Only one of those "stalwarts" is a liberal, the socialist professor-turned-politician Bernie Sanders. Other left-wing ideologues like Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and of course Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) apparently escaped Weisman's attention.

Indeed, while Reid's Senate is one-half of a Congress with abysmal public approval ratings, Weisman lamented that with the Senate "almost dysfunctional" that "new power centers," such as "pragmatist" dealmakers like Trent Lott "are difficult to find."

Weisman did quote conservative former senator Don Nickles's observation that "there's just been a lot less" of senators working across party lines to keep the legislative trains moving, but most of the praise for Lott came from "David Hoppe, Lott's longtime chief of staff," who currently roams the corridors of power in Washington as a lobbyist at "Quinn, Gillespie & Associates," and former Bush nemesis and Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle.

Daschle, a frequent thorn in the side of conservatives during his tenure in the Senate, was quoted praising Lott as a legislator "who often excelled in finding compromise and common ground."

What type of common ground, you ask? Weisman turns to Hoppe who obliges with the tale of the humble origins of SCHIP, which Democrats unsuccessfully aimed to expand beyond its original intent to cover the "working poor" (emphasis mine):

Lott made a career out of the art of the deal. In the summer of 1996, after then-Sen. Robert J. Dole resigned to pursue the White House full time, Lott took the reins of a Senate that had ground to a halt as Democrats moved to thwart GOP accomplishments ahead of the presidential election. Lott implored his colleagues to act.

In short order, Congress approved a major overhaul of the nation's welfare laws, cleared a bevy of other bills and cut a deal with the Clinton White House on annual spending bills. After the election, Hoppe recalled, Clinton called Lott to joke that had he not gotten the Senate back on track, the Democrats might well have recaptured a chamber of Congress.

The next year, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin -- both wealthy Wall Street financiers -- sat huddled in Lott's office, as Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tried to cut a final deal on a balanced budget agreement that included a cut to the capital gains tax rate.

"There they were, two Democrats who had been very successful in business, squaring off with two Republicans who didn't have two nickels to rub together," Hoppe recalled.

They struck a deal: Cut the capital gains rate and create a major federal program to offer health insurance to children of the working poor.

That's not exactly something that makes conservatives warm and gushy inside, particularly since former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) recently admitted SCHIP is a backdoor attempt at promoting universal socialized medicine.

While Weisman found no conservative or Republican detractors of the outgoing Mississippi senator, plenty of conservative activists and bloggers are giving Lott less than a fond farewell.

While Weisman eulogized Lott as among the last in a dying breed of statesmen, blogger Ed Morrissey noted Lott's staunch opposition to more openness in government, particularly in tracking wasteful pork-barrel spending (emphasis mine):

Lott has had a rocky ride of late in the Senate. He had to resign as Majority Leader in 2002 after praising Strom Thurmond and asserting that Thurmond's Dixiecrat segregationist platform could have benefited the US had he been elected President in 1948. More recently, he lashed out at porkbusters who demanded answers to his prodigious earmarking. His ascent to party leadership last year created a firestorm of controversy about the message it sent regarding the direction of the Republican Party on ethics and spending issues.

History may treat Lott more kindly than contemporaneous accounts. He served most of four terms as an effective party leader. After his departure from the Majority Leader seat, many felt that Bill Frist could not match Lott's infighting ability, which was sorely missed when judicial nominations bogged down in 2005.

Still, Lott will most likely be remembered for his arrogance and his inability to adapt to the paradigms of open government in the Internet/blogosphere era. He staunchly defended an old tradition of trading power and influence at a time when America finally started to see the costs inherent in those mechanisms. Lott could have led the Republicans to adapt to the new reality and become the vanguard of ethics reform and smaller government, but instead remained entrenched in the trappings of a vanishing era. When challenged, he lashed out instead of listened, and now he walks away with little credibility left.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.