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Reid Unlikely to Meet Lott’s Fate

Despite GOP demands that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) follow the 2002 example of then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and resign his leadership post, observers said key differences in the two Senators’ responses to their respective scandals mean Reid will remain the chamber’s top Democrat.

While Reid’s characterization of President Barack Obama as a “light skinned” black with no “Negro dialect” has caught him in an unwanted scandal, Republicans and Democrats alike argued that Lott was brought down by his own slow response, internal opposition to his leadership and a hostile White House.

“The president is the leader of the party. When his team is giving the ‘Caesar’s thumbs down,’ it makes it very problematic and difficult to survive a crisis,” said a Lott insider who worked for the lawmaker at the time.

Lott’s downfall ostensibly stemmed from his Dec. 5, 2002, speech at a party celebrating the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). During his speech, Lott quipped that the country would have been better off if Thurmond, most famous for leading a filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had been elected president in 1948. His comments were similar to those he delivered in a 1980 speech about Thurmond.

News of the speech, which came at the start of a Congressional recess, was slow to spread, and with Lott on vacation in the Florida Keys, it was two days later that his office commented — downplaying the remarks as nothing more than a compliment to the elderly lawmaker.

By contrast, Reid’s office moved quickly to quash the scandal over his comments. Although Reid aides said he made his comments to author Mark Halperin during a 2008 “private” conversation on the presidential election, word did not leak until this weekend as part of news reports on Halperin’s book.

Within hours, Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, had issued a statement from Reid apologizing for his comments, while aides and those close to Reid quickly shifted into damage control mode.

Reid also addressed the media Monday afternoon, apologizing again and thanking black civil rights leaders for supporting him.

Lott’s first formal statement, however, came two days after his office’s initial slow reaction. On Dec. 9, Lott’s office issued a second statement, saying, “My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over 50 years ago.”

But by then, the controversy was quickly filling the news hole created by the recess, and cable news coverage had turned the matter into a crisis.

As Lott struggled to control the scandal, long-standing divisions within his own party quickly surfaced. Although Lott had built his control of the Senate GOP largely on his ability to make good on promises to his colleagues and forge compromises, over the years he had developed a number of enemies as well as competitors for his leadership position, most notably Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who was widely considered Lott’s top rival for the leadership job.

In contrast, Reid has the support of his entire Conference, which has repeatedly come to the leader’s defense when Reid has been attacked by Republicans. Democratic aides said that Reid has talked with all of his members — all of whom have in turn offered to make public shows of support.

And while Reid has opted to focus on highlighting support from black elected and civil leaders, Republicans and Democrats noted that has been a dramatic difference between the two leaders. “Inside the [Democratic] caucus, there’s not one member yet to pull their finger out of the dam. There was with Lott. Don Nickles was out there. [Former Sen.] George Allen [R-Va.] was out there. Those guys were stirring the pot,” a former Senate Republican aide said.

Reid has also enjoyed strong support from Obama, who issued a statement Saturday accepting Reid’s apology and dismissing claims that the Majority Leader is racist.

In contrast, Lott’s uneasy relationship with the White House also was cause for increasing concern. The Bush administration put a premium on loyalty and wanted members of President George W. Bush’s trusted circle of advisers and friends in key positions of the government. But by its nature as an elected body, the White House couldn’t simply install leaders in either chamber — and Lott, who had a reputation for compromise, did not fit the mold of a “Bush guy.”

“The White House never trusted him,” a former Lott aide noted.

At the same time, the party’s increasingly conservative base was already unhappy with Lott, sources said, thanks to his less-than-enthusiastic approach to the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

That, combined with Lott’s penchant for bipartisan deal-making “caused himself to be a villain of the right, particularly after the Clinton impeachment trial,” a Lott source said.

But despite those problems, initially, most members of the GOP sought to distance themselves from the comments while remaining supportive of Lott’s leadership, issuing statements chastising him for making insensitive remarks but arguing that because he had apologized he should be forgiven. Most of the GOP Conference’s leaders also backed Lott. Lawmakers “took issue with Lott’s remarks, but not with Lott. They were very supportive of him,” a Lott source said.

But the controversy remained in the headlines, forcing Lott to make a series of public apologies, including a Dec. 12 appearance on Black Entertainment Television during which Lott said, “My choice of words were totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that.”

But by then, the crisis had taken its toll on Lott. Lott sources noted that Nickles and Allen were becoming openly critical of Lott, and during conference calls between the Members, questioned whether Lott should remain the Conference’s leader.

At the same time, the White House quickly began moving to distance itself from Lott. The day after his BET appearance, Bush condemned Lott’s comments during a speech, saying they “do not reflect the spirit of our country.” One Republican who worked in the Senate at the time of the controversy said Bush’s comments were key in pushing the Conference to oust Lott. “They saw this as an opportunity to put someone in there who they trusted, who they could work with,” the source said.

By Dec. 20, Nickles was openly calling for new leadership elections. With then-up-and-coming Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) quickly securing the support of 51 Republicans, Lott stepped down.

Republicans also said Reid may end up being helped by two other factors — the fact that he is inextricably tied to Obama’s health care bill and the fact that, in many ways, he provides the GOP with a useful foil during this year’s election.

A Republican strategist noted that, “Democrats recognize that their legislative agenda is at stake here. Health care, that’s what’s really going on.”

A Senate GOP aide agreed, but said Reid as Majority Leader is also a potential boon for Republicans. “Things are better for us with him there. It’s going to make every other competitive race that much more difficult,” the aide said.

It’s unclear how much damage Reid’s comments will do to his own re-election race.

The revelation of his remarks about Obama came on the heels of gloomy new polling numbers that show more than half of Nevada voters view him unfavorably. The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and released over the weekend, reinforces the daunting task Reid faces to win re-election this year.

Political strategists in Nevada, however, did not think Reid’s latest verbal gaffe will seal his electoral fate in 2010.

“I don’t think it’s fatal,” said Las Vegas-based Democratic strategist Dan Hart. “I think that Senator Reid handled it well. He made a mistake, he apologized, he got in front of the issue.”

Hart said the fact that Reid promptly got “an army of African-American activists to indicate their support of him” probably prevented any serious long-term political damage.

A Republican strategist close to the Nevada delegation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to damage relationships on both sides of the aisle, disagreed with Hart that the comment will not have a long-term impact, though he did not think it alone would be a determining factor in the race.

“Having this out in the news, it reminds Nevadans that they don’t really care for the guy,” said the strategist. Even if one sets aside the race issue, it highlights Reid’s “caustic” nature and his “penchant for saying kind of rude things.”

“This just strengthens the whole narrative that Republicans are assembling to defeat him,” the GOP strategist said, though he added that he did not think the Senator was in any way a racist.

The Republican strategist also said that Reid’s comments could hurt him with his Democratic base, whose energy and support he desperately needs in the general election.

“If it means some people are less likely to volunteer for him or go door-to-door or make phone calls, that’s a problem and certainly I think it’s going to have that effect,” he said.

“Personally I don’t see how Senator Reid gets re-elected,” the strategist said, even without the latest controversy.

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