Race To The Exit

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. Former president Bill Clinton acidly, but not inaccurately, observed that Lott had just made the mistake of saying what too many Republicans still feel. Like his father before him, George W. Bush stooped to win the GOP nomination by appealing to the Southern redneck vote in 2000 (by, for instance, declining to stand against state capitols' flying the Confederate flag).

Frist, who comes from the more moderate Tennessee rather than Lott's conservative Mississippi, will help. An almost-too-good-to-believe surgeon who spends vacations operating on poor people in sub-Saharan Africa, Frist is eying a presidential run in 2008. He is not regarded as a legislative wheeler-dealer, but he will present a strong face and smooth voice on Sunday talk shows. Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a crafty old-timer, is expected to play Mr. Inside to Frist's Mr. Outside, cutting deals and knocking heads in the cloakroom as Republican whip.

With a general election coming up in November 2004, the Republicans are chiefly concerned with winning over moderate swing voters, not securing the right flank. Fearful of offending the soccer moms, Bush was never eager to get into hot-button social issues with a racial edge. Even before the Lott imbroglio, some White House officials argued that the administration should take no position in a critical case, now before the --Supreme Court, testing affirmative action in higher education.

While the Republicans were struggling to expunge an unsavory past, the Democrats last week were also cleaning house. Al Gore gave up his hope of avenging the 2000 election by bowing out of the 2004 race. In his typically impersonal way, Gore let his former running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, know by a message on his BlackBerry pager.

In the so-called first presidential primary--the race for money--Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has access to plenty of cash. As a former trial lawyer, "he can go into any law firm and get partners to write checks; that's a tremendous leg up," says Steve Jarding, a Democratic operative backing Edwards. Former House majority leader Richard Gephardt has already put together a group called "the Patriots" (modeled on the GOP's Pioneers of 2000), people who pledge to raise $100,000 apiece. Senator Lieberman is making a claim to a $7 million legal fund left over from the Gore-Lieberman campaign, a tidy nest egg. But with Gore gone, the front runner in the polls is likely to be Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is packing them in at $1,000-a-plate dinners in Boston and Washington. People who have talked to Kerry say he has already mused about how strong a Kerry- Edwards ticket would be. Edwards, of course, may have other ideas.

Kerry has something his rivals lack: a war record. Awarded a Silver Star in Vietnam, he has more freedom to attack Bush's national-security record than the others. If there is one quality a Democratic candidate needs right now, it is the appearance of strength. Bush has overcome his shaky start by projecting an image of power. Old mistakes and new disasters could bring him low between now and 2004. But as the Lott episode shows, Bush has been lucky as well as strong. The Democrats cannot afford to simply wait for Bush to fall.