Monday, April 18, 2005

Frist Agonistes

Bill Frist is trying too hard. Like Don Quixote armed only with hubris and the nuclear option, Frist has mounted his faithful steed and is riding out to the countryside to slay the judicial tyranny that is victimizing our country.

Bill Frist wants to be president very badly. In the hope of winning the primary votes––if not the hearts and minds––of Christian conservatives, he has been pursuing a strategy of unvarnished pandering to the right wing of his own party. During the Terri Schiavo affair Frist, a Harvard-trained surgeon, threw medical ethics to the wind as he pronounced his medical opinion on Schiavo’s condition from the well of the Senate based. This Sunday, Frist will speak at a rally of the Family Research Council, whose President, Tony Perkins, has thrown down the gauntlet against a judiciary that has been working “like thieves in the night, to rob us of our Christian heritage and our religious freedoms.”

Things are really spinning out of control here, and at times one can only watch in wonder. Frist’s antics are increasingly the focus of concern by those within his own party, and not just the radical left wing Republican cabal of John McCain and the New England Senators. Centrists Chuck Hagel, Lindsay Graham and Jack Danforth all raised concern over the past few days about the destruction of what remains of comity and judgment in the leadership of the Senate.

From a Democratic standpoint, however, Frist is doing just fine. As long as he continues to play Chong to Tom Delay’s Cheech, Frist is deepening fissures within the Republican Party, and ultimately undermining the credibility of the Party in the eyes of a public that still has a center, even if the political parties seem to have forsaken it. For New York Senator Hillary Clinton, there is no better scenario than a political race against Bill Frist. It would be two Senators with no executive experience running against each other. Her Achilles Heel would be thus shielded against Republican arrows.

But that race will never come to be. Frist is trying too hard, too soon. “Judicial tyranny” may be effective rhetoric for playing to the right, but on the floor of the Senate and in the broader public debate reality will sink in. The fact is that the federal judiciary today was overwhelmingly appointed by Republican presidents. According to the Los Angeles Times ninety-four of the 162 active judges now on the U.S. Court of Appeals were Republican appointees, while on 10 of the 13 circuit courts, Republican appointees have “a clear majority.” And then of course there is the Supreme Court with only two Democratic appointees––whatever one thinks of David Souter.

At some point in the debate, as the sides are drawn and the issue is engaged, people will seek to put a face on the problem. They will look at who these judges are and who put them there. And the realization will slowly emerge: tyranny thy face is Bush.

Whatever the outcome this term, Frist can only emerge as damaged goods. As a leader, he will either have failed to execute the nuclear option and kill the judicial filibuster as demanded by the right, or he will have dealt a staggering blow to the traditions that are the cornerstone of the Senate, the institution he has sworn his fealty to lead.

Frist’s real problem is that he is a lame duck. Since he announced his decision not to seek reelection in 2006 in order to run for president, he has come face to face with his own political mortality. In eighteen months he will lose not only the position of Majority Leader, but also his Senate seat. The impact of that change will be swift. Not only will he lose the standing and attention he was accorded as Leader, but as private citizen those whom he stepped on will not hesitate to pay him back in kind.

Today, the right wing groups are happy to play up to him. He has power, and can help them move their agenda. But once he steps down they will move on. And like Howard Baker, the fellow Tennessean and Senate Leader who failed badly in his presidential bid after leaving the Senate, he will find that the reception of Dr. Bill Frist, Citizen, on the campaign trail will not what he hoped it would be. He has to make hay now, for tomorrow no one will be paying him any mind.

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