WASHINGTON -- A prominent Republican who had not been to Washington lately last week dropped into the capital, a city in the doldrums with both Congress and the president out of town. He was struck by one unexpected topic concentrating the attention of Republican insiders. It was not Iraq, Social Security or the Supreme Court. It was Bill Frist, and the reviews are not good.
Actually, Frist's performance as Senate majority leader has improved markedly through more than two and one-half years of on-the-job training. It's the atmospherics that bother fellow Republicans, typified by his decision to break with President Bush on embryonic stem cell research. For politicians, Frist's sin is not so much what he did but when he did it. Announcing his new stem cell position July 29, the last day the Senate was in session before the summer recess, stepped on his applause lines for the unexpectedly productive pre-recess congressional record.
"He has a tin ear," one Republican senator told me. This critic conceded Frist's performance as majority leader in 2005 is much better than in 2004 (though this is true partly because he no longer has to deal with the implacable Tom Daschle as Democratic leader). But Frist's knack for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time has cast a pall over his once bright presidential ambitions for 2008, apart from his national leadership role in the party.
Frist's Republican colleagues cannot understand why he surprised them with his new stem cell position at time when they wanted him to brag of the sudden burst of Senate productivity with passage of the transportation, energy and gun bills. It could not be presidential politics, because advocacy of new embryonic research alienates social conservatives whose support he needs.
"I spent weeks talking with the best scientists and ethicists in the world about this issue," Frist said in a long e-mail to supporters last week explaining his position. In this message, Frist did not address his timing or the political impact, providing further evidence that he thinks like the transplant surgeon he once was rather than the politician he now is.
The other complaints my visitor to Washington heard may seem trivial to the outside world but are crucial to politicians. They pertain to a frosty relationship between Frist and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who certainly does think like a politician. At a bicameral meeting of Republican leaders shortly before the summer recess, Hastert was about to speak when Frist announced that Judge John Roberts had just arrived to see him. Frist walked out, and bystanders thought this was no way to treat the third-ranking person in the presidential succession.
Earlier Frist walkouts have miffed Hastert. In late January, Frist skipped the beginning of a Republican Greenbrier retreat to attend the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. That killed Hastert's plans for a three-way conference between him, Frist and Bush. A month earlier, Frist missed the counting of Electoral College votes (including the Ohio challenge) to leave on a medical mission to the Indian Ocean following the tsunami. This was a decision by a doctor, not a politician.
Even more experienced legislators have trouble coping with the ambiguous relationship between majority leader and president. But seldom has a Republican majority leader so blatantly defied a Republican president as Frist has on stem cell research. What irritates pro-life activists is that they had been conferring with Frist over strategy to derail the legislation he now is supporting.
Frist has recovered from helplessness against Daschle on judicial confirmations. Sen. Harry Reid, the new Democratic leader, sounds harsher than Daschle in public but is much more congenial in private. Frist has won confirmation of three hotly contested Bush nominees for the appellate bench and is in the driver's seat on future confirmations.
Self-limited to two Senate terms, Frist leaves at the end of 2006 whether or not he launches a full-fledged presidential campaign beginning in 2007. But in his remaining time, he may face multiple Supreme Court nominations, Social Security revision and tax reform. He is sincere and increasingly effective, but colleagues hope his ear will become more acute.