Frist Learns To Pander

But will his immigration ploy help his presidential campaign?

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Sen. Bill Frist

Some time ago, Bill Frist decided he wouldn’t make the mistake that Bob Dole did by running for president as Senate majority leader. As Senate majority leader, you must be a diplomat: You have to make compromises and listen to the White House and heed your colleagues’ diverse wishes. Dole got swallowed up in the details of legislation. When he finally got on the stump, he seemed animated only when he was talking about amendments and cloture. Only C-SPAN devotees were moved.

A presidential candidate needs freedom to pander to the party’s base, make bold pronouncements, and run as an outsider against the Washington elite. In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Frist already seemed to be fleeing from his old post when he answered a question about the best place from which to make a presidential run. “I know the perch not to even consider,” he said. “That would be, for me, the United States Senate or being majority leader.” Asked if trying to run a campaign from such a position would be difficult, he replied: “Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible.”

Though Frist knew intellectually that he couldn’t do both things at once, that didn’t keep him from trying and failing, usually because he couldn’t commit to the full pander. In 2004, he participated in “Justice Sunday,” an evangelical rally against the godless judiciary, but wouldn’t show up in person, sending a videotape instead. Social conservatives didn’t buy the lame gesture. The group did not invite him back.

A year ago, Frist traded on his medical expertise, telling the Senate that brain-damaged Floridian Terri Schiavo was not in a “persistent vegetative state”—a declaration that pleased right-to-life activists but looked a little silly and strained since he’d drawn that conclusion from a videotape. Presumably his excellent reputation as a heart and lung surgeon was built on more thorough diagnoses. Frist backpedaled and said he was not trying to diagnose a patient by remote. And a good thing, too: The autopsy results ultimately showed that Schiavo’s brain had shriveled. The majority leader’s diagnosis was not just unprofessional, but wrong.

Now Frist seems to have learned his lesson. On immigration reform he had a choice. He could oppose any bill that allowed existing illegal immigrants a path into legal status—a move that would excite conservatives but cloud the chance for a reasoned debate. Or, he could instead manage a debate over whether to allow ultimate citizenship or just a grace period of a few years, during which immigrants could work before being kicked out of the country.

Frist has chosen sides and gone for the full pander to the base. On Tuesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee produced an immigration bill that included tough security and border-enforcement measures but also a program that would allow existing illegal aliens to get legal, Frist was the first to step up and call it “amnesty.” This is not the act of a thoughtful, nuanced majority leader. This is the act of a candidate. To label the measure “amnesty” so quickly is to do more than simply disagree with it. Frist was using a loaded term favored by the base. To conservatives, amnesty suggests undeserved forgiveness for the estimated 12 million people living here illegally and an invitation to more lawlessness. The man who uses the phrase “nuclear option” so flamboyantly knows about the power of loaded language in Republican politics. Yet the bill he opposed was hardly a free ride. It offers citizenship only after 11 years, a clean record, a steady job, payment of a $2,000 fine and back taxes, and knowledge of English and civics. It’s easier to get into the Senate.

The measure Frist opposes is being pushed by his 2008 rival John McCain, who is doing his own clumsy repositioning in early May by speaking at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The majority leader wants to make the immigration debate the first contest of 2008, and his claim is that he is a more conservative candidate than McCain. It’s a bold stroke, but it’s going to require a lot of diligence. Once you embrace your party’s firebrands on an issue, they require loyalty. If Frist rediscovers his majority-leader desire for deal-making and ends up backing something that the conservatives still view as amnesty, he will be in trouble. Once you use the ax, you can’t go back to the scalpel.