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Too Far to the Left for Far Right

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Republican Trent Lott is an unlikely punching bag for his party’s right wing.

But the voice of the conservative community has been among the loudest in the growing clamor for Lott to relinquish his post of incoming Senate majority leader, turning those who should be his natural political allies into some of his fiercest adversaries.

Their animus is helping propel the challenge to Lott by Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, one of the few Senate Republicans who is arguably more conservative than the Mississippian.

This has laid bare a long-standing political reality little noticed outside the GOP inner circle: Many in the GOP’s influential conservative wing have never much liked him, even before this month’s imbroglio over comments by Lott that seemed to endorse segregation. They also have viewed him as an ineffective leader.

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These conservatives believe he has not pushed their agenda aggressively enough. Many blame him for the defection of Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont from the GOP last year, which stripped the Republicans of their Senate majority when Jeffords became an independent. And they question whether Lott is, in his heart, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative -- or just a typical politician most interested in steering federal dollars to his state.

“They have never felt comfortable with Lott,” said one GOP source close to conservative activists. “They believe he’s a dealmaker, not an ideologue.”

On that tinderbox of hostility, the controversy over Lott’s remarks at a party honoring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was like a lighted match. Demands for his resignation have flared from such bastions of conservative opinion as National Review commentators William J. Bennett and Charles Krauthammer.

“If he were an effective leader or personally popular, he would have weathered this easily,” said William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard. He also has called for Lott’s resignation as leader.

On paper, Lott is about as conservative as they come. He opposes abortion rights and government regulation of business; he supports tax cuts and gun rights; he has a 93% lifetime voting record with the American Conservative Union.

When he was first elected Senate GOP leader in 1996, conservatives were delighted because he promised a more aggressive, combative form of leadership than was expected from the man he beat for the job, fellow Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran. He also was expected to more aggressively push conservative causes than the GOP leader he succeeded, Bob Dole of Kansas.

But many conservatives were quickly disappointed. Some were especially angered when Lott in 1997 did not block Senate passage of a chemical weapons treaty, despite vehement opposition from conservatives skeptical of such international pacts. Conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich denounced Lott as a “doormat for [then-President] Clinton.” In 1998, Lott and other GOP leaders enraged fiscal conservatives by accepting a budget deal that critics said spent too much and gave too much ground to Clinton.

More recently, conservatives were disappointed that Lott was not more combative in dealing with Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. They argue that Lott did not push hard enough to get a Senate vote on a ban on human cloning. He infuriated conservatives in the House by last year joining in support of an airport security bill that allowed federalization of baggage screening jobs and this year by backing a tougher corporate reform bill than the one the House had passed.

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“We didn’t see that Lott was able to hold his own against Daschle,” said one activist who asked not to be named.

To an even greater degree, the rap on Lott among conservatives has been based more on style than substance.

“Trent is not perceived as a fighter,” said a Republican close to the Senate leadership. “It isn’t ideology; it’s how hard is he willing to fight and lose occasionally [to score political points]. Trent does not like to lose.”

Lott’s allies say that conservatives -- especially activists who do not hold office -- do not understand the pragmatic need for compromise within Congress.

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“There are things you must do as leader that you have the luxury of not doing when you’re not in the leadership,” said a senior Senate GOP aide. “It’s always much easier to stand outside this tent machine-gunning in.”

Some conservatives were already calling for Lott to step down after the 1998 elections, in which the GOP failed to gain despite the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal looming over Clinton. The National Review urged Republicans to replace Lott with Nickles, arguing that Lott “has proven himself better suited to the back bench, where he is at least a generally reliable vote.” Just last week, the magazine revived its argument for Nickles. “We have long considered Lott a clumsy and ineffective Republican leader, and his controversial Strom Thurmond birthday remarks are a spectacular confirmation of that judgment,” the magazine editorialized.

Also criticizing Lott, but stopping short of demanding he resign, has been the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. It did, however, raise the question of “whether Mr. Lott can still lead the GOP Senate in what is a historic opportunity for conservative reform.”

The Family Research Council, a conservative group that focuses on social issues, complained that Lott’s comments “will serve only to reinforce the false stereotype that white conservatives are racists at heart.”

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