Lott to Learn

If you believe Trent Lott, Tom Daschle will have his hands full when he becomes majority leader of the Senate later today. Over the weekend, the deposed Republican majority leader bitterly threatened to "wage war" against Democrats, insisting their 50-49 majority does not actually constitute a majority and promising to grind Senate operations to a halt if he grows displeased with Daschle's handling of Bush's judicial nominees.

Fat chance. Lott's tantrum is part preening egotism, part sour grapes. It's also a doomed attempt to emulate Daschle's only real victory as minority leader, the unprecedented power-sharing arrangement he negotiated with Lott in January. But Lott's situation is different. And that's not just based on the numbers. When Daschle made his bold demand, Washington was still caught in the throes of Bush's much-hyped, short-lived atmosphere of "bipartisanship." Had they denied Daschle so early on, Bush and Lott would have risked shattering this carefully crafted illusion and ending their honeymoon prematurely. But Jim Jeffords' defection from the GOP and Bush's own governing style have taken care of all that. Only Lott doesn't seem to realize that the playing field has shifted. His demand comes at a time when the very notion of that sort of bipartisanship has become embarrassing, especially to Democrats who swooned at Bush's early entreaties only to be humiliated over nominations and the tax cut. To accommodate Lott now would not only be unnecessary, but pathetic.

Then there's the matter of Lott's threat and what it would actually bring about. Republicans have said they may filibuster a new Senate organizational agreement, essentially shutting down the government over judicial nominees. Were this to happen, it would certainly command attention. But not the sort of attention that favors Republicans.

Bush's surprising effectiveness as president has occurred principally because he abandoned a bipartisan approach in favor of a strict conservative agenda that dismisses any and all opposition with glib generalities. The considerable success Republicans have enjoyed to date has been achieved by avoiding exactly the kind of scrutiny that a government shutdown would generate -- remember, until Jeffords' sudden defection, the
defining characteristic of Democrats during the Bush administration was their inability to raise public awareness of their opposition to any of Bush's plans.

But another Republican-led shutdown would do exactly that. Leaving aside the obvious point that it would thwart Republicans' own agenda, nothing could command the media's rapt attention and scrutiny quicker than a shutdown over judicial nominees. With legislation stalled over a high-stakes ideological battle, the press would have little choice but to look beyond the superficial qualities that they've focused on to date (such as the race and gender of Bush's reactionary nominees) and explain to the public what exactly is so controversial about Bush's choice of nominees to the federal bench. That's a scenario can only benefit moderates and liberals.

So Lott's threat of a shutdown is either empty or foolish. Either way, Daschle must appreciate the unexpected help.