Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring from the Senate at the conclusion of this Congress, and will immediately begin the daily grind of running for president. As he travels through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as other points on the long road to the White House, he'll be crossing paths with and sooner than we know it debating Senators John McCain and George Allen, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and perhaps a handful of others.
Each of the top tier of candidates is working on their basic message, their primary selling points, their personal theme. For Giuliani, the core appeal will concern his leadership on the nation's darkest day. For Romney it will be his leadership in Massachusetts and before that, of the Salt Lake City Olympics. For Senator McCain it will be his claim to steadfastness in wars past and present. Allen and others will have to fashion their own appeals.
The Majority Leader has no option but to run on his record of leadership in the Senate where the month ahead will truly present a unique series of opportunities and possibly a campaign-ending set of dramas.
It is Bill Frist's desire to deliver legislation confirming the president's authority to order the NSA to conduct warrant less surveillance of al Qaeda abroad contacting its operatives within the U.S.
It is the Majority Leader's desire to also provide a bill explicitly authorizing military tribunals for use in trying the killers of 9/11 and their associates now imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
And it also the Tennessee doctor's desire to see to the confirmation of Peter Keisler to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the single most important judicial nomination not yet acted upon by the Senate. (Though confirmation of other nominees would also be to his credit, the confirmation of Keisler would put the second most important court in the country on solid footing for a generation.)
Bill Fist needs a hat trick. He's got to deliver both bills and at least a confirmed Keisler to be able to travel this country with a record of achievement fresh in the eyes of the GOP primary electorate.
The gracious and keenly intelligent surgeon is charming and impressive in person, but can be disorganized and indirect on the stump. Speaking style can be improved of course, but legislative victories can't be manufactured after the fact. A phrase comes to mind from Chariots of Fire, uttered by track coach Sam Mussabinito to sprinter Harold Abrahams when the latter asked the former to make him fast: "You can't put in what God left out."
No matter how powerful a stump speaker Bill Frist becomes, if October sees Congress leave without these three urgent pieces of business completed, there's going to be a huge hole in the senator's core campaign speech that even the best delivery won't be able to hide. He won't be able to put in what the Senate left out.
If, on the other hand, the tribunals are established, the president's authority to use his Article II powers to direct the NSA confirmed, and Keisler sworn in, Bill Frist has a powerful claim on having led in this crucial period of the war when the MSM, urged on by the hard left, is attempting to persuade America that the war cannot be won, and that even if lost, will not have serious consequences for the country.
Rarely does a would-be president get to influence his own record so directly so close to the primaries. If Bill Frist isn't talking about his achievements in the fall of '06 come the winter of '07, his candidacy could be over before it began.