The Next Majority Leader

Half the man Trent Lott was.

Bill Frist and Don Nickles, illustration by Charlie Powell
Bill Frist and Don Nickles

Every time Trent Lott says he’s sorry, the nation nods and thinks to itself that pathetic would be a more appropriate word. Conservatives have felt that way about Lott for a long time—not because of his neo-Confederate politics, but because they believe he’s too interested in compromising with Democrats and that he lacks a vision of how to expand the Republican majority. The men most frequently mentioned as replacements for Lott—Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee—are seen as cures for those ills. Nickles would supply backbone, and Frist would supply vision. But that’s what troubles Republicans about Frist and Nickles. Each would solve only half of Lott’s problems.

Nickles would be the Republican answer to Nancy Pelosi. He would fire up the GOP’s base, but he would also come under heavy criticism from the media for being “extreme.” Since his election in 1980 as the youngest Republican senator in history (he was 31), Nickles has become known as one of the most socially conservative members of the Senate. He chaired the Republican platform committee during the party’s divisive 1992 convention. He sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act. He told the Daily Oklahoman that the question of whether homosexuals should be allowed in the Republican Party was a “tough one.” He was a prominent opponent of James Hormel, President Clinton’s openly gay ambassador to Luxembourg.

Conservatives hope that Nickles, like Pelosi, would be an aggressive obstructionist. After all, obstructing Democratic legislation is one of the primary jobs of a GOP leader, even a majority one, and Lott was never that good at it. In 1997, National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote that Lott’s leadership was “a reprise of the days of Bob Dole, when a legislative tactician with a taste for deal-making and cool relations with the GOP’s grass-roots muddled from one compromise to the next.” Nickles would face the opposite dilemma: He’s more adept at stoking the base than at passing legislation. Under Nickles, the Republican Party would stick to its principles and face two years of filibustering as a result. (Though, as Jack Shafer has noted, that may not be a bad thing.)

In contrast, Frist is “Dr. McCain,” a press darling beloved more for his biography than for his positions. He’s probably a little too liberal for the GOP base, though much more conservative than the 2002 McCain. As the Senate’s only doctor, Frist has carved out a role as an expert on health care and bioterrorism, but his real authority is moral, not intellectual: It stems from his previous dedication to saving lives through heart and lung transplants. He continues to work as a surgeon at least once a year, traveling to Africa to tend to the sick as a medical missionary.

Not all of Frist’s life story is saintly. He left his fiancee two days before their wedding for the woman who is now his wife. As a medical student, he lied to animal shelters in order to acquire cats for experiments. But those foibles haven’t prevented him from becoming the biggest star of the Republican class of ‘94. In his first run for office, he beat James Sasser, an 18-year incumbent who was expected to succeed George Mitchell as Democratic leader. During the 2002 election cycle, Frist chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, earning credit for the Republican takeover of the Senate.

Frist credits his political instincts to medical training. “I am a good diagnostician,” he told Campaigns & Elections magazine in 1995. “For the past 20 years I’ve spent every day reading people who come through my door with a complaint. Sometimes they can verbalize it, sometimes they can’t. I observe, I listen, then I diagnose, based on intuition, facts, and knowledge.” But the attitudes that Frist developed as a doctor may prevent him from rising higher in the GOP ranks.

Frist once told NPR that there are “no absolute right, absolute wrong answers” in medicine, which flies in the face of what most pro-lifers believe. In 1995, he backed Clinton’s nominee for surgeon general—Henry Foster, a Nashville doctor who acknowledged performing abortions. During last year’s stem-cell debate, Frist proposed using leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics for scientific research. For pro-lifers, that position comes “too close to treating human embryos as Frist once treated stray cats,” as the Weekly Standard put it. The Standard also noted that Frist “believes there is a moral imperative to use one unsalvageable life to save another,” a utilitarian stance at odds with the ethos of many grass-roots conservatives.

Republicans will have to decide whether they prefer someone like Frist, who may divide their base, or someone like Nickles, who may divide them from the rest of the country. Democrats should root for Nickles, or someone like him. After three presidential elections in which neither Democrats nor Republicans received a majority of the popular vote, Nickles’ ascension would be a sign that the two parties have kicked off a campaign to see whether they can both be in the minority in Congress, too.