UPDATE (12/15/2002): Lott chooses the hard way.
He had his chance late Friday afternoon to make a gracious, face-saving resignation. Instead he chose to close his eyes to reality and cling to power to the bitter end. Now his removal will be impossible to spin as anything other than a personal humiliation.
Today Senator Don Nickles called for a new Leadership election. I'll repeat what I said in my Saddam post below: These events follow a trajectory. We're now past the point of wondering whether Lott can contain the damage and survive. We've moved on to handicapping the race to select his successor.
Trent Lott may go out with a whimper, not a bang. But either way, he's toast...
...and for many of the same reasons I describe in my Saddam post below. Except that it's even more predictable here in this country than internationally.
We've got a media feeding frenzy underway. I've closely observed other feeding frenzies, and I've even had some personal experience with them, so I trust my intuition on this one. Trent Lott's days as Republican Majority Leader are severely numbered. The only remaining question is the manner of his departure.
The broo-ha-ha in response to Lott's praise for Strom Thurmond (in the latter's 1948 segregationist incarnation) took several days to bloom within the mainstream press. This is normal. It gives the person caught in the crosshairs a false sense of security, so that Lott was tempted to believe his best course of action was to say nothing and let the controversy fade away. But when an issue resonates, it doesn't just die down. Instead, pundits and columnists and newspaper editorials and politicians pick up on it and echo and amplify it. Hard news stories are written about the controversy, which generates more commentary and more news stories. In engineering terms, it's positive feedback on a massive scale.
The Blogosphere / Internet has acted as a near-perfect echo chamber in this feeding frenzy, led by Glenn Reynolds who's been "flooding the zone". Yesterday's revelation that Lott made similar comments in 1980 constitutes blood in the water. We're clearly past the point of no return. [And I'm running out of metaphors and cliches.]
Trent Lott is now in the desperate damage-control phase, as he puts out more clarifications and denials, and as he appears on conservative talk shows like Sean Hannity's. Behind the scenes he's undoubtedly swearing to fellow Senators that he'll never relinquish his position. And he's probably threatening other Republican Senators that he'll resign from the Senate (costing them a clear majority) if they try to force him out.
But keeping Lott as Majority Leader is a direct threat to those other Senators and their future re-elections. That's an unforgiveable political sin. It's also an immediate threat to their majority control of the Senate, since liberal Republicans like Chafee and Snow can quitely indicate that they'll jump the fence rather than be placed in the position of backing Lott. Other tangential but consequential pressures will come into play, as powerful Republican movers and shakers and big contributors make known their extreme unhappiness. Bush has to worry that the Lott controversy will undermine his legislative agenda and seriously threaten his re-election.
The most likely scenario is that close friends and allies in the Senate will have private conversations with Lott in which they'll tell him that the votes simply aren't there to keep him on as Majority Leader. This is also an indirect way of telling him that their votes aren't there either. Even a barely-competent Majority Leader like Lott has some ability to count votes, and will eventually recognize the inevitable.
If Lott refuses to cave, he'll be dragged kicking and screaming from his post. If he resigns from the Senate he'll be villified by Republicans across the nation as a worse traitor than Jeffords. But in the end he won't be Senate Majority Leader.
However Lott has a long history of caving. I think he'll make the traditional "good of the country" speech: He'll claim to have been unfairly villified, but say that the blown-out-of-proportion controversy has made it impossible for him to continue to be effective in his role as Majority Leader. Rather than let it interfere with the critical goals of the Republican Party and the needs of the country during a time of war, yadda, yadda, yadda, he has decided to step aside and allow Senator X (his hand-picked choice) to assume the reigns.
My best guess for a timeframe is 2 to 6 days.