It took about three years of helping to turn Afghanistan into a failed state before Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Republican from Tennessee, experienced his first moment of clarity. “A political solution is how it's all going to be solved,” Frist told reporters at a U.S. military installation in the country on a visit a few weeks ago. “You need to bring [the Taliban] into a more transparent type of government.”
The wisdom of Frist's advice can certainly be debated (can the Taliban be in Afghanistan what, in essence, Hezbollah is in Lebanon?). But it does at least present an extremely rare acknowledgment from a Bush Republican that diplomacy and negotiation are useful policy tools.
Unfortunately, that's just about the only time in the last five years that Frist, who is leaving the Senate after this election, has worn even a mild hue of independence -- or displayed original, forward thinking, or the courage to take a heterodox stance on an issue simply because it happened to be correct. As he ends his legislative career, Frist stands at the helm of a Senate he helped to weaken. Whether it was in service of the White House advisers who adopted him as a dauphin to George W. Bush, or as an ill-planned lunge for the Republican base in an opportunistic bid for a future presidency, Frist almost always did the wrong thing, both as a legislator and as a politician. And this, it seems, has likely ended his career in Republican politics in Washington.
Frist didn't always seem so hapless. Four years ago, he was a kingmaker -- the campaign leader who netted nearly $70 million in funds during the 2002 midterm elections to help Republican candidates take control of the Senate. Then there was Bill Frist the crown taker, the strategically agile opportunist who seized the leadership position that Trent Lott was forced to abdicate in disgrace. Finally, there was Bill Frist the president in training, whose successes in his first months at the helm of the Senate -- cheap and partisan though they were -- hinted at real political acumen and won him the support of the people who'd made Bush president.
But then he toppled headlong through a series of follies into a political ignominy that's rare even in Washington. Frist the charlatan, for instance, was a high-ranking officer in the culture wars who dragged the Republican Party into perhaps its only defeat in the eyes of its evangelical base during the entirety of the Bush era. His role was to offer the country, and Terri Schiavo's shattered family, what might rightly be called a telemisdiagnosis. “Persistent vegetative state,” Frist cautioned. “I question it. I question it based on a review of the video footage, which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office.”
The effort to intervene in the courts' decision and in Michael Schiavo's wishes for his wife “backfired big time,” said one senior Democratic aide. “People were turned off, Republicans and Democrats alike.” Even the most generous poll found evangelicals evenly divided. Frist (and, of course, the president) had split the base.
Reliance on partisanship damaged Frist at other times as well. When he found himself caught between the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy immigration coalition in the Senate and the cries from the far right and the House of Representatives to seal the border, Frist froze. He knifed comprehensive reform entirely. And by allowing the House legislation to become law Frist raised serious questions about how a man of his disposition -- who could not handle the political fallout from a rift between his president and his base -- could ever be president, let alone continue to be majority leader. “This,” said a political aide close to the reform effort, “was a battle that he didn't want to fight.”
There were other signs that Frist may have checked out of politics mentally. In a widely read Washington Post article that ran just after the immigration debacle, it was revealed that instead of concentrating on his job, Frist was at the zoo treating captive gorillas for heart disease. “There's almost a spiritual, poetic component to it,” Frist said to the Post about his veterinary hobby. “This oneness, this wholeness. You can't compare it to the Senate floor. I immerse myself in it. This is my real life.”
But partisanship and escapism aside, Frist's legacy may be most tainted by a stunning lack of independence and a perfunctory adherence to White House orders. He pushed forward Bush measures on health savings accounts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit in lieu of smarter policies and at a taxpayer cost of billions. He sat beside Bush friend and counsel Harriet Miers after the president announced her as his nominee to the Supreme Court and offered his support: “Harriet is a nomination that we are excited about, we are pleased with.” His pledge was not only ungrammatical, but unpersuasive: “We” did not include the several Republican senators, and many other prominent Republicans and conservatives, who groaned in surprise and dismay at the nomination. “[Frist] undermined the Senate's prerogative, weakening the institution, in order to carry Bush's water. ... Only a few Republicans will say that this represents a failure of leadership now, but historians will whack him for it,” said a senior aide and confidant to former Senate Democratic leader and Frist foe Tom Daschle.
It seems clear that Frist pursued this subservience because he thought it was the best route to the White House in 2008. He had reason to believe it, and to be loyal -- he got the leadership position because of Karl Rove's support. But that support was double-edged: Without it, he might have been less intent upon simply retaining it, and his mind could have remained more focused on the pressing business of the Senate. In the days after Bush was sworn in for his second term, The Weekly Standard, handicapping the 2008 elections, wrote that “unlike Giuliani's and McCain's, Frist's fortunes are partly tied to President Bush. As Senate majority leader, Frist will earn credit -- or blame -- based on how much of the Bush agenda he shepherds through. If Bush gets tax, Social Security, or tort reform, it will be a feather in Frist's cap.”
The Daschle aide also cautioned me, though, not to underplay Frist's own limitations: “There were times that he was just outmaneuvered by Daschle. He just did dumb things and got hosed. That's not because he was too close to the White House or eyeing the presidency, but because he was a bad leader.” But the White House didn't help. By alloying his talent with the advice of the crony-minded stewards of the West Wing, Frist shrugged off the independence he needed to help Republicans win important policy victories in the Senate and instead found himself locked in political step with the White House, creating the first Republican leadership in recent memory to pander and flounder so completely and at the same time.
Those failures have left Frist with few allies on either the left or the right. Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative strategist, told me that conservatives don't see him “as someone who has advanced the conservative cause in the country. ... [H]e's not someone conservatives would or should support for president.” When Frist announced that he might -- yes -- disagree with the president about government-funded stem-cell research, conservative activists William and Nancy Goldcamp, writing in The Washington Times, offered the unlikely criticism that Frist had been “seduced by secular humanism and its veneration of all things scientific. Even if unwittingly, he has shown himself to be unfit for the presidency.” A still better barometer of current-era establishment conservatism, the editors of The National Review proclaimed, “There are no limits on cloning, either; no limits on research using human fetuses; no limits on the creation of human-animal hybrids. This is mostly the fault of politicians such as Frist.”
The miscues and the gaffes that pockmark the Frist era have crippled him. And all this is without mentioning the investigation into allegations of insider trading that he has yet to face. For that reason, November 7 may well be his last meaningful day in Washington. It will stand as a day to celebrate, with quiet relief, how political excesses were unable to salvage a political leader whose skills and ideas were undeserving of such high standing in the first place.
Brian Beutler is Washington correspondent for Raw Story.