Goodbye, Dr. Frist

Posted: Sep 28, 2006 10:47 AM

If Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) were still in his former occupation, he could well be sued by his 54 fellow Republicans, 99 senators, and the American people at large for malpractice. When he took the job as majority leader, I wrote in this space that the only thing in common between his new and old occupations was breaking ribs. But he failed to do even that!

Running the House of Representatives is like commanding the Prussian Army. All you need is a sense of discipline, a well-used firing squad, and a mentality that will allow you to march congressmen at double time across mine fields in order to clear them. The House political leadership’s monopoly on power, money, policy, and, through the state leadership, on district lines, makes these demands easy to get fulfilled. The only problem in the House is that discipline will be too tight and will allow the kind of corruption that appears to flourish in an environment in which nobody can ask any questions.

But the traditions and procedures of the Senate are quite different. When Americans speak of congressional gridlock and frustrating inaction, they usually mean the Senate. Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) memoir is aptly titled, Herding Cats. The task requires a delicate mix of political sensibility and a capacity to tolerate but also to discipline the cranky needs of 54 prima donnas and 45 part-time adversaries and potential allies. One has to have a deft political hand and an instinct for such things.

Frist performed about as well as a heart surgeon with mittens on. He failed utterly to provide the leadership necessary and managed to so mangle the reputation of the legislative wing of the Republican Party in the process that it may take several elections, and perhaps a Hillary Clinton presidency, to recover.

Trying to respond to the conflicting demands of the white angry men and women who oppose illegal immigration and the sensitive Hispanics who worry about racism, he succumbed to the temptation to load up a bill with everything, from both sides, which stood no chance of passage. Then, he was so incapable of engineering consensus that he couldn’t even convene a conference committee to iron out the differences with the House.

Asked to lead the ethically challenged House in lobbying reform, he did nothing.

He managed, despite a compliant House, a supportive president, and 55 votes, to pass very little and achieve almost nothing.

Now he leads his majority into the general election virtually certain of losing four seats and hoping desperately not to lose six. That’s some record!

He couldn’t even use the job as a springboard to a presidential candidacy. He failed in this regard not the same way Howard Baker or Bob Dole did (doing so good a job in the Senate that they sullied their chances for the White House) but by acquiring a reputation for ineffectuality and inability.

So what is the lesson for the future? A majority leader must not just be from the Senate. He must be of the Senate. He or she need not only sit in the body, but they must ooze its traditions, savor its tempo, grasp its inhibitions, and challenge its institutional lethargy. A good leader needs to grasp that each Senator is really more like a head of a country than a legislator. House members travel in groups. Senators walk alone and above it all. He needs to grasp what their political needs are and figure out how to appease them while, at the same time, leading them.

Indeed, it may be impossible, in this age of minute media coverage, to have one person fill the dual roles of presenting the majority’s public face and organizing its private operations. There may need to be a Mister Inside and a Mister Outside – perhaps with the former as whip and the later as leader.

But, in any case, the leader and the whip both need to be politicians, not doctors.