If Bill Frist’s performance as Senate majority leader the last few weeks is any indication, he would have trouble managing a two-car funeral let alone the vast U.S. government, which apparently is his ultimate goal. Without being too hard on the Tennessee surgeon who President Bush handpicked for his current assignment, it is reasonable to suggest that his skill in the operating theater has not found its way into the political arena.
Frist’s ineptness in the struggle over the president’s stalled judicial nominees and his non participation in a “compromise” that at least partially cleared the pipeline may have stemmed somewhat from the fact that he is a lame duck leader who has indicated he will not run for reelection two years from now. In political terms, he lacks the clout to punish mavericks.
But a much larger factor in Frist’s failure to completely wipe out Democrat opposition to the conservative judicial nominees through the filibuster-ending “nuclear option” probably was the president’s own stubbornness in the matter, his refusal to give the beleaguered majority leader the help he needed. Bush showed no inclination to compromise nor apparently did he use his power of personal persuasion on concerned moderates in his own party.
The entire bumbling exercise, exacerbated by the evangelical zeal of the conservatives, points up once again just how difficult it is to reach the White House when one starts from the floor of the U. S. Senate. John F. Kennedy was the only one to make it in the 20th century and that was because he practically ignored the Senate for the four years previous to his election, missing roll call after roll call while his chief opponent for the 1960 Democrat nomination, Lyndon Johnson, was hamstrung by his majority leader duties.
That highlights another political truism. The majority leadership is not a good platform from which to launch a presidential campaign. Frist need only ask former Republican leader and fellow Tennessean Howard Baker or Robert Dole, who resigned the job and the Senate to seek the presidency. Baker found the responsibilities of his Senate position so daunting, he gave up his campaign for the nomination while Dole won the nomination but lost the presidency.
So while Frist reportedly will spend the two years after his term ends building the organization needed to run a competitive campaign, he probably should consider returning to his medical roots fulltime. As has been noted throughout the ordeal, Frist seemed visibly shaken by it all.
Well, why not? Those who wanted to trample the opposition into the dirt by taking away the filibuster make up a large percentage of the Republican base. That he was unable to head off what they consider a disaster may make it more difficult for him to convince them he is up to replacing Bush. Actually, the compromise may be quite short lived with the real test coming sometime before the fall when it is expected that the ailing William Rehnquist will retire as chief justice of the United States, either producing one confirmation battle or two if Bush decides to elevate a current justice to the top job. That’s what this has been all about in the first place.
Unfortunately for Frist, trying to manage the Senate has been made far more difficult by Bush’s determination to have a lasting ideological impact on the federal court system even at the expense of other important initiatives. The extensive debate over the nominees is emotionally draining, time consuming and requires much more patience and skill than the majority leader has demonstrated. It needs the firm hand of a Dole or even the manipulative ability of a Trent Lott whom Frist replaced.
When the late Everett Dirksen ran the Republican minority and the late Mike Mansfield controlled the majority, there was never a question about personal political ambition getting in the way. Neither harbored any presidential hopes and the Senate ran pretty well. Frist is going to have to make some hard -nosed decisions the remaining 18 months until the midterm elections and they will be far more difficult if they are based on what might be good for his own political career. It would be wrong to count him out of 2008, but his attractiveness to some who will have a voice in his nomination clearly has been diminished.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)