Charles Babington takes a critical look at the presidential aspirations of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in today’s Washington Post. While Frist has never come out as a contender for 2008, his candidacy has been widely expected, and earlier he seemed to have an inside track to frontrunner status thanks to his high profile and the success of extending the GOP majority after the last election.
Unfortunately for Frist, a series of miscalculations and apparent reversals have left that reputation in tatters, to the point where Frist now has the reputation as lacking in either ability or enthusiasm for political battle. That reputation will likely sink Frist’s ambitions for higher office, Babington writes:
By noon last Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist seemed done with John R. Bolton’s nomination to be U.N. ambassador. Bustling from the Capitol to have lunch with President Bush, he told reporters he planned no further votes to try to end the Democrats’ long-running filibuster of the embattled nominee.
But after his presidential chat, Frist announced he would keep trying, prompting newspaper headlines such as “Frist Reverses Himself,” which his staff called unfair.
The next day, the Tennessee surgeon-turned-politician again seemed to wash his hands of Bolton. “It’s really between the White House and Chris Dodd and Joe Biden,” he said, naming two senior Democratic senators. At 11 p.m., however, he was working the phones, successfully urging another conversation between Biden and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. But the late-night Biden-Card call did not resolve a dispute over documents at the heart of the Bolton impasse, and Frist had little to show for his work but negative news reports and political headaches.
The Bolton double-180 raised eyebrows among the GOP, even those who don’t necessarily hold much of a portfolio for the Bolton nomination. The main job of the Majority Leader is to make sure that the caucus gets a clear message and strategy on legislative and executive efforts. For a couple of days, it looked like Frist couldn’t even decide that for himself, and a frustrated White House had to get the wires uncrossed twice in order to continue the pressure on Democrats to stop their filibuster.
The same wishy-washiness showed itself in the battle over judicial nominations. Frist miscalculated the depth of Harry Reid’s conviction to continue the obstructionism of his predecessor, even after the historic — and embarrassing — spectacle of the Senate holding up the Electoral College vote just to regale the country with tales of GOP vote suppression that their own study later showed never took place. When the Democrats insisted on debating Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation for Secretary of State in order for Mark Dayton to call her a “liar”, Frist should have known at that time that Reid had selected executive-branch confirmations as his battleground, and reacted accordingingly with the Byrd option in January.
Instead, Frist dithered for months, and only pressed the issue when the rank and file lost patience with Frist sitting on what had been billed as the top domestic priority for the Senate. That lack of fortitude does not play well as a quality for an executive. People want to see decisiveness, insight, and the passion to fight for one’s agenda in their leadership. The last thing that the GOP wants in the White House is a man who will get rolled by the opposition, especially when the GOP holds the majority and most of the political cards in the deck.
Put simply, when Frist had all of the advantages that could possibly accrue to a Majority Leader, he has failed to deliver on the agenda. That alone should disqualify him from serious consideration in 2008 for the Presidency. In the meantime, we all hope he quickly improves his performance in his current position, or the GOP will need to give someone else a tryout in his place.