Trent Lott’s Stages of Grief 

Trent Lott is becoming unhinged. At first the former Senate majority leader tried to look on the bright side about his newly reduced status. “There’s something liberating about being in the minority,” Lott noted philosophically on a call-in radio show. “You’re freer to advocate positions and amendments you really think should be adopted.”

In suggesting that politicians find it easier to be honest when they’re out of power, Lott was not merely saying something we all believe but demonstrating it as well. So it would be unkind to ask what this observation suggests about the “positions” Lott “advocated” before last month, or anything he might say should he become majority leader again.

Acceptance is the last of the famous five stages of grief, as conceived by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. You’re supposed to arrive there after going through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, and Depression. But Lott seems to be doing it backward. Within days, he has slipped from Acceptance back to Anger and even Denial. In a “Call to Action” released by his office (and first reported Sunday in the New York Times), the poor man seemed maddened by the loss of power and a sense of betrayal.

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks,” he declared— No, wait, that was King Lear. Lott merely called for “war” to regain Republican control of the Senate, which had been overturned by a ” ‘coup of one’ that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority.” Doctors believe this may be a fevered reference to Sen. James Jeffords’ switch from Republican to independent, also described by Lott as “the impetuous decision of one man to undermine our democracy.”

Republicans must recapture the Senate not just because that would be nice, but because “We have a moral obligation to restore the integrity of our democracy, to restore by the democratic process what was changed in the back rooms in Washington.” Democratic “control of the Senate lacks the moral authority of a mandate from the voters.”

Lott’s notion that Democratic control of the Senate is not merely unfortunate but actually illegitimate is interesting for political reasons as well as the obvious psychiatric ones. The Senate minority leader is not the only one suffering painful symptoms of withdrawal from the drug of political triumphalism. His is not even the most severe case. (Have you been reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page?) Republicans and conservatives, somewhat to their credit, are always quick to develop a sense of manifest destiny: a conviction that democracy has anointed them and their agenda forever. They had this feeling, with some justification, throughout the 1980s. They had it again, briefly, in 1994. They had it as recently as two weeks ago, with impressively little factual basis.

Facts are, by definition, a therapy of limited usefulness in cases of advanced delusion. But let us try a few on Sen. Lott’s notion that the people have decreed a Republican majority in the Senate and anything that prevents one amounts to a coup d’état. These pills may help others who are less severely afflicted.

One small flaw in Lott’s narrative tapestry is that there was not a Republican majority in the Senate even before Jim Jeffords, that impetuous scalawag, betrayed Western civilization. The result was 50-50, remember? It is dubious enough to suppose that when people vote for a particular Senate candidate they are making a conscious decision about which party they wish to see in control. Add in the tie-breaker role of the vice president, especially one elected under the circumstances of this one, and the theory becomes ridiculous.

But suppose that Lott is right and Senate elections are referendums on which party should control the Senate. In that case “the moral authority of a mandate from the voters” belongs to the Democrats, who got 38.38 million votes for senator last November, compared with 37.83 for the Republicans. The fact that states like Montana get just as many senators as New York and California makes it easy for Republicans to have even an actual majority of Senate seats without getting a majority of the vote.

A Republican with a more finely honed sense of irony than Trent Lott’s might hesitate before thundering about the moral sanctity of majority rule. Until two weeks ago, the Republicans dominated both elected branches of government without a popular majority in either one. And they were busy with plans to reinforce the effective conservative majority in the third, unelected branch.

American democracy, as we learned last November, is not a system of majority rule. It is majority rule tempered by some purposeful departures enshrined in the Constitution and by some inevitable accidents of history, like the population of North Dakota and the quirky personality of a particular senator from Vermont. They’re all part of the system. You cannot reasonably pick and choose among these anomalies, demanding that the other side be good sports about the ones that help you while denouncing the ones that hurt you as betrayals of democracy.

Although they rightly contested an inaccurate vote count in Florida, the Democrats have been very good sports about the basic fact that they lost the presidency while getting a majority of the vote. The Republicans, by contrast, seem to find it inconceivable—and illegitimate—that they should be out of power, even when that result is dictated by both simple majority rule and our system’s peculiar departures from it.

And to think these were the people who used to be fixated on the need for term limits.