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By Richard S. Dunham It has been a tumultuous yearend for both major political parties. Republicans were rocked by the firestorm over the racially charged remarks of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who announced on Dec. 20 that he would step aside as Senate GOP leader. And the Democrats were stunned by Al Gore's decision not to attempt a rematch with George W. Bush. But while GOP efforts to woo minorities and swing voters have been dealt a setback, and the Democrats now have no Presidential front-runner, both events could be godsends.
Here's why: Lott's self-immolation and Gore's withdrawal open the door for new leaders to craft more inclusive, forward-looking agendas. For the Democrats, the 2004 primaries won't be dominated by an increasingly liberal Gore and his "people vs. the powerful" message. And Republicans now have a chance to buff their "compassionate conservative" credentials by forcefully severing any lingering connection to a segregationist past and becoming the "big tent" they purport to be.
THINKING AHEAD. The GOP may be breathing an even bigger sigh of relief now that Lott has decided not to remain in his leadership post after the controversy arising from his suggestion that the country would have been better off if Strom Thurmond, running as a Dixiecrat, had been elected President in 1948 on a platform of racial segregation.
White House officials and GOP strategists say the Lott debacle -- while a short-term setback for party attempts to woo minorities and suburban centrists -- could become an opportunity to show how the Republican Party has changed. The White House is already thinking ahead. In a symbolic gesture, the President may take black business leaders and elected officials on his five-nation tour of Africa in January.
More substantively, Lott's resignation as leader will allow the party to project a more progressive image in its selection of a new leader. The White House favorite: Bill Frist, the telegenic surgeon-turned-senator from Tennessee who has traveled extensively in Africa and champions AIDS research. Frist also worked closely with Bush political guru Karl Rove to engineer the 2002 GOP Senate takeover.
"THE SMELL TEST." Still, the policy implications of the Lott mess are profound. The Administration will be hard-pressed to challenge affirmative-action rules in court. And Republicans acknowledge that it'll be tougher for them to remake the federal judiciary by adding hard-line conservatives like Mississippi judge Charles W. Pickering, a Bush nominee criticized by civil rights groups for trying to reduce the sentences of convicted cross-burners. Bush will be under intense pressure to choose "a moderate African American for the 5th Circuit [judgeship], instead of Pickering," says Georgetown University law professor John Podesta, a former Clinton White House Chief of Staff.
But some strong signs say the GOP can weather Hurricane Trent. A Dec. 12-15 ABC News Poll found that a surprising 56% of those polled had a favorable image of the party, one point higher than it was before the Lott controversy. And a Gallup Poll indicated that only 22% of Americans believe that congressional Republicans are racist -- although just 12% of voters think the same of Hill Democrats.
Bush, by publicly chastising Lott, could even emerge as leader of the new breed of racially progressive conservatives. "The President does, as of now, pass the smell taste on race," says George Mason University historian Roger Wilkins. "There's an evolution [in the Republican Party], but it is slow."
CENTRIST BOOST. And what about Gore's Dec. 14 announcement? It delighted Democrats who had feared a disastrous 2004 campaign and dashed Republicans' dreams of a rematch landslide. "Bush would have just shellacked Gore," says GOP consultant John Morgan. "This gives the Democrats an opportunity."
If the former Veep's exit scrambles the primary field, it also gives centrists a stronger voice in the 2004 policy debate. Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a probusiness moderate who had ruled out challenging his 2000 running mate, is now likely to run. And without Gore pushing a single-payer health plan that Republicans mock as socialized medicine, the Democratic debate is likely to center on more market-oriented reforms.
Another winner: freshman North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who has an opening to emerge as the centrist voice of the New South. But even if a liberal ends up winning the Democratic scramble, the party will have a better chance to compete against Bush in 2004. "With Gore in the race, it would have been a rehash of the past," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "Now it's about the future."
The loss of Lott as top Hill Senate Republican, and the going of Gore as a Presidential aspirant in 2004 are both classic Washington moments -- power lost in the blink of an eye. Their colleagues may wish both well, but privately, they'll contemplate a brighter future. With Alexandra Starr in Washington
Dunham is chief political correspondent for BusinessWeek