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Why Doc Frist Could Buck Up the GOP


The ascent of Bill Frist to Senate Majority Leader was not pretty. The telegenic doctor from Tennessee had to step over Trent Lott's burned-out career to get to the top, and certainly hard feelings remain among some of his colleagues. But after Republicans won big in the midterm elections, the Lott debacle had sent the party into a tailspin just as President George W. Bush needed a unified front to grapple with terrorism, war, and a sluggish economy. Apparent nostalgia for a segregationist past by Lott, the once and probable Senate Majority Leader, left the GOP open to criticism that it tolerates racism.

Now, however, the party seems poised to regain its footing. Frist is one of the Senate's most conservative members, yet his nonthreatening style will put a more moderate face on the GOP. His pet issues--reforming Medicare and adding a prescription-drug benefit--coincidentally are top priorities of Bush and a majority of voters. And while the two-termer has little experience moving legislation through the Senate, even Democrats expect him to secure passage of the President's stimulus package mostly intact.

In short, Frist will play well in the cul-de-sacs of America, helping the Prez consolidate support among the suburban swing voters who will be crucial to victory in 2004. Says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report: "[The changeover] was costly in the short term but probably very beneficial in the long term."

For starters, Frist, who travels to Africa every year to care for AIDS patients, personifies Bush's compassionate-conservative philosophy. And by replacing Lott, he reassures moderates who may have considered leaving the party. "While Frist is conservative, he talks about issues like health care and education, rather than jumping up and down about abortion," says Nathan Gonzales of the politically neutral Rothenberg Political Report. "Suburban voters appreciate that."

Not that Frist isn't ardently anti-abortion. Indeed, social conservatives hope he will advance their agenda. "When a Harvard-trained physician speaks on medical-related matters, he speaks with a great deal of authority," says Ken Connor, head of the pro-life Family Research Council. "He's potentially a potent force on this issue." Perhaps, but Frist supporters say he may not push for much more than bans on so-called partial-birth abortion and cloning, preferring to focus on broader health-care issues.

That could be a boon to the Bush agenda. The President has ambitious plans to convert Medicare into a more efficient, semiprivate health plan by forcing it to compete against insurers for elderly patients. Only then, he reasons, can America afford a Medicare drug benefit. It's a risky strategy, but Frist's medical background suggests that he may have more success than Lott, who failed to win even a limited Medicare drug benefit.

Of course, Frist's first item of business will be to usher through the President's stimulus package. He will have to cobble together a compromise that satisfies those who want aggressive tax cuts while assuaging the concerns of GOP deficit hawks. Because he's never served in the Senate leadership, Frist has no experience corraling votes. However, observes James A. Thurber, an American University government professor, "He'll be able to reach out to moderate Republicans in the Northeast." That was an ability that eluded Lott.

True, Frist can count on only a two-vote GOP margin. And balancing the demands of tax-cutters and social conservatives will be tricky. But with little baggage, the appealing Frist may be just what the doctor ordered to deliver the Bush legislative victories that now seem within reach. Having shamed Wall Street, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is setting his sights on the Bush Administration. His target: a regulation issued on New Year's Eve that he says will let smokestack industries increase harmful emissions without installing modern pollution controls. The rule takes effect on Mar. 3. Joined by eight other Northeastern states, Spitzer is spearheading a suit claiming that the Administration failed to follow rulemaking procedures and violated the Clean Air Act.

But challenging the regulatory process--particularly in the foggy arena of clean air policy--is never easy. And with the White House unlikely to be embarrassed into a settlement, Spitzer may be handed a rare defeat.

The crux of his argument is that the Administration is giving industry too much leeway. The new rules let companies set up a baseline for emissions by picking any two-year period in the past 10. Existing rules specify the most recent two years. Jonathan H. Adler, who teaches law at Case Western Reserve University, doubts Spitzer will get far: "The AGs' argument boils down to: `We don't like the policy because we don't like what it does.' That's not a particularly strong argument." Adler expects the U.S. District Court in Washington to uphold the rule. Even if Spitzer loses in court, however, he could win big in the court of public opinion.


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