Team Bush sometimes played hardball in their relations with Congress, but sometimes they applied a deceptively deft and subtle touch. In December 2002, Republican Senator Trent Lott threw the Republican Party into turmoil by appearing to praise the segregationist legacy of Senator Strom Thurmond at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. For Bush, the turmoil that resulted was a political nightmare. The Republicans had just stunned the Democrats by wresting away control of the Senate, and Lott was about to become the new majority leader. Bush was planning on using the new legislative session to ramp up his 2004 presidential campaign and broaden his political base. Lott’s comments threatened to distract attention from the Bush agenda and undermine the president’s efforts to appeal to moderate voters.
Bush could not afford to be seen pushing Lott out of the GOP majority position. Republican senators would resent being muscled that abruptly. But the last thing Bush needed as 2003 began was a wounded Senate leader, protracted criticism of the party’s position on race, and an extended distraction just as the administration was framing its agenda.
At a speech in Philadelphia, Bush took the unusual step of criticizing Lott directly. “Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong,” he told his applauding audience. That was Bush’s last public comment on Lott. But for the next week, White House aides carefully eroded Lott’s position. Through calculated leaks by “senior White House officials,” the drumbeat continued. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration’s senior African-American official, said that he “deplored” what Lott had said, and Florida governor Jeb Bush said that “something’s going to have to change. This can’t be the topic of conversation over the next week.”
It wasn’t. Within days, Lott announced he would remain in the Senate but step down as majority leader. James Carville, longtime Clinton strategist, admired the fact that “it was a clean extraction.” Replacing Lott was Tennessee senator Bill Frist, which led Robert S. Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to note, “They’ve got a skilled surgeon coming in to run the Senate, and they used a surgeon’s skill to remove Lott without leaving any fingerprints.” He was amazed at the administration’s skill. “Whether you agree or disagree with this administration on policy, you have to give the White House tremendous credit for coming to town and after two years having this kind of political performance.”
It was a delicate hand to play. Push too hard and Bush risked offending the clubby traditions of the Senate. Not push hard enough and the Lott problem could have lingered, leaving Lott gravely wounded but still majority leader—or giving Democrats weeks of news stories that would wound Bush’s legislative agenda. Instead, Bush acted quickly to ensure he didn’t himself become the issue.
Bush’s blatant support for Frist risked inserting himself too deeply into congressional politics, which threatened to cause trouble later. In the short term, however, he blunted the political uproar. With a deft touch, Bush solved the problem and more clearly cemented his position in Washington. It was a remarkably well-played hand—all the more for the team’s ability to secure victory out of an unforeseen problem that could have proved to be a damaging, lingering sore.