Monday, April 03, 2006

Frist's doleful dilemma

Bill Frist has Bob Dole disease.
I was struck by that realization this morning while reading a new profile on Frist. The current Senate Republican leader is lamenting how hard it is to run for president while holding down a leadership job on Capitol Hill. That's exactly what Dole used to say, back in 1996, when he was Senate Republican leader and trying to run for president at the same time. The record will show that Dole wound up not as leader of the free world, but as a pitchman for Viagara.
Frist may not do any better.
It's a (true) cliche that half the U.S. senators wake up every morning and see a future president in the mirror, but it's a mystery why that is so. Take a guess how many Republican senators have made it to the White House during the past century: One. That would be Warren G. Harding, and the only reason he made it was because the GOP power brokers in a 1920 smoke-filled room had to come up with a compromise nominee.
And take a guess how many Democratic senators have made it during the past century: One. That would be John F. Kennedy, and that ascent was more attributable to his dad's backstage clout than to anything he accomplished in the Senate (where he accomplished little).
Voters just don't like to elect establishment insiders who make a living by talking a lot and casting thousands of ambiguous legislative votes that can be explained every which way. If that was deemed to be an attactive quality, maybe we would have elected Howard Baker or Alan Cranston or John Glenn or John Kerry or Bob Kerrey or Paul Simon or scores of others I could cite at random.
Frist thinks he can fix the problem by quitting the Senate - the article today says that he will find it liberating to leave - and that reminded me of Dole's decision to do the same on May 15, 1996, to "leave behind all the trappings of power, all comfort, all security," as Dole put it that day. But it did Dole no good. He stayed trapped by his long record of amendments, compromises, and all the attendant parliamentary arcana. And he still talked in legislatese.
Frist may be similary trapped, by the problem of being a Washington insider (12 years, in his case) while yearning to be seen as an upstart outsider. He'll try to boost the latter image this week, with a tough-on-immigrants bill that is designed to please the grassroots conservative base. But his prospects for White House succeess are not strong.
I can't share the withering assessments of the good doctor that I am hearing these days from many Republicans, because even the comments themselves are off the record. But this one, from a highranking GOP leader in a key primary state, has been authorized for use:
"He started his campaign thinking he could come on like Marcus Welby, and he's ending up like Bob Dole."