Bill Frist is beginning to look like the John Edwards of the Republican Party—a presidential candidate who is running for vice president, even if he doesn’t yet know it.
Edwards, you will remember, was the man to watch three years out from the 2004 election, the senator billed as the next Bill Clinton. In the end, the Democratic Party establishment was charmed but underwhelmed. Edwards slipped into the V.P. slot; the more time he spent in the limelight, the less he shone.
To be clear, Frist has not yet decided whether he will run in 2008. But he is certainly doing a good impression of it. He also, however, has a serious day job as Senate majority leader. And it’s not always easy to serve as the president’s shepherd of the party faithful on Capitol Hill while you keep one eye on moving to the White House yourself.
Frist has made clear he will give up his Tennessee Senate seat in 2006, keeping his pledge to serve just two terms and leaving himself free to campaign for president. He has begun to court his party’s conservative base. Last Friday night in Manchester, N.H., he schmoozed the local politicians at a Republican Party dinner, reminiscing about the happy New England weekends he and his wife Karyn spent in their younger days.
Like Edwards, Frist has an enviable résumé: He is a doctor, a Southerner, a Christian family man, and a hell of a success story. The great-great grandson of one of the founders of Chattanooga, Tenn., and the son of a successful doctor, Frist went to high school in Nashville, college at Princeton, and medical school at Harvard. At 53, with his neat part and nice smile he still looks like an overgrown schoolboy, the kind who would bring an apple to the teacher if he weren’t now the principal. Frist has performed more than 150 heart and lung transplants. But most of his estimated $20 million in wealth comes from his share of the Hospital Corporation of America, the for-profit hospital chain founded by his father and his brother.
Frist came late to politics, not even voting until the age of 36. In his first race for Senate in 1994, he beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser with the pitch: “While I’ve been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans’ wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry.” Frist made his first dent on the national consciousness four years later, when he rushed to provide medical assistance to a police officer who was shot on Capitol Hill and to the shooter. The doctor thing has remained part of his shtick. He travels on his own time and dollar to administer care in Africa, and he has campaigned for more U.S. funding to fight AIDS there.
But Frist made his mark in the Senate by coming through for his colleagues: The year he took over the Republican committee that raises funds for the party’s senatorial candidates, he increased collection by roughly 50 percent. When Trent Lott self-destructed two years ago with his wistful recollection of Strom Thurmond’s segregationist past, Frist propelled himself forward—aided by the Bush White House—to take the Republican helm in the Senate.
Despite this success, Frist brings to mind the pep talk a football coach once gave his team in the locker room before the big game. “On paper, they’re better than us. Fortunately, we’re playing on grass.” Frist has looked better on paper than on the political field of play. He does not light up a room or the TV screen. In small groups and one-on-one, he has a sympathetic manner; on the stump, he looks like, well, a physician. People who work with him speak in awe of his inner drive and his near photographic memory but despair about his lack of charisma. Frist knows about his projection problem and is said to be going to style school.
Frist’s larger problem, though, is that even as Senate majority leader he still seems more doctor than lawmaker. He has pet issues, like AIDS, but he’s considered to be neither a policy heavyweight nor a master of process. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican whip, is regarded as the man who minds the party’s shop in the Senate, tracking the trade-offs between committee rooms and the Senate floor and striking deals between senators. When pressure needs to be applied in the Senate, Karl Rove makes the call. At critical moments, Frist has simply gone missing: He was nowhere to be found when the Democrats stalled the ceremonial counting of the Electoral College votes in January over a dispute about Ohio’s ballots.
Frist deserves credit as the patient steward of the Medicare prescription drug bill, which passed in 2003 after an all-night session of Senate wrangling. But in 2004, the Republican legislative record was negligible, with both the energy bill and tort reform stalling in the Senate. To be sure, Frist was working with a tiny majority in an election year. Still, his decision to go to South Dakota to campaign against Tom Daschle, an unprecedented piece of partisan politicking by a Senate majority leader, hardly fostered a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. On the Hill, speculation has already begun that Lott will seek to resume his role as Senate majority leader when Frist steps down in 2006.
Lately, the slip of Frist’s presidential ambition has been starting to show. By pouncing on Arlen Specter after the November election to demand that the Pennsylvania senator pledge his support for the president’s judicial nominees as prospective head of the Senate judiciary committee, Frist made an obvious overture to Christian conservatives—but didn’t help hold together the Senate’s Republican caucus. Last week as well it seemed that the politics of 2008 were interfering with the business of 2005. Frist told reporters that it could take perhaps as long as a year to get Social Security legislation to a vote in the Senate. He seemed to be voicing a certain sympathy for the public’s reluctance about the president’s chief legislative priority. By Thursday, he was on the Senate floor clarifying his position—or perhaps recanting. “We need to do it this year,” Frist said, “not next year, but this year.” To be fair, Frist may have been guilty mostly of a little loose talk: His initial comments were intended to explain that there is no clear timeline for Social Security legislation. Still, he left the impression that he is in no hurry to bring to a vote what looks like an unpopular proposal. Even if Frist discovers an untapped source of charisma, fumblings like these will send him right to the V.P. spot.