Bill Frist is the Republican's new darling. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer says that's the downside of Trent Lott's fall, for Democrats.
Only that star-crossed band of bumblers commonly known as the Democratic Party could emerge from an apparent fiasco in their enemy's ranks – the Trent Lott affair – weakened.
But that is precisely what could happen if Tennessee Senator Bill Frist takes over as Senate Majority Leader.
Bill Frist, as far as the Democrats are concerned, is twice the player Trent Lott is. Bloodied or not, they'd rather have Lott to kick around.
The White House, reportedly, agrees. Big time. As chairman of Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Dr. Frist worked closely with Karl Rove and George W. Bush on the political surgery that recaptured the Senate for the party.
Within hours of Frist letting it be known that he would be willing to take Lott's job, the Mississippi Republican was officially toast. Lott's fall was inevitable. But the way Frist capped him off gives evidence of his new potency. He scared off Don Nickles, who was supposed to be Lott's biggest threat, without firing a shot. Other endorsements of Frist came steadily both before and after Lott actually resigned.
Bill Frist is a GOP star. He was on Bush's 2000 vice president list and he'll be back on the list in 2004 if Cheney isn't on the ticket. "Frist in 2008" chatter has been heard around Washington for a long time.
Frist is someone congressional Republicans have been eager to give the ball to – and these are people who don't like to share.
When anthrax-mail hit the Capitol last year, Frist was the point man, even for Democrats. "His voice carries by far the strongest weight in the Senate on any medically related matter," Democratic Senator Mark Dayton said at the time.
When Republicans needed to get the Senate back after Jim Jeffords defected, they turned to Frist. When the party couldn't find it's way through the stem cell research issue, Frist was their point man.
Frist was planning on taking the GOP lead on high-profile heath care issues this year, while keeping an eye out for 2008.
The bottom line is Frist is a rising star. He's handsome, well spoken, smart, telegenic and has a friendly, moderate image. And he has a great resume.
He went to Princeton as an undergraduate and Harvard for medical school. He founded Vanderbilt University's organ transplant center and was a successful, innovative heart and lung transplant surgeon. (OK, so he's not a brain surgeon.) He published a book on bioterrorism earlier this year.
And – get this – he makes an annual medical mission to Africa and works there as doctor, not a pol.
Not that his reputation as a politician isn't plenty shiny. Not only does he get a good deal of credit for the party's success in November, he is also famous for his wily defeat in incumbent Senator Jim Sasser in 1994.
As for opposition research, there is the odd fact that Frist never voted until he was 36 years old.
And his father founded the company HCA, the huge for-profit hospital company that merged with other companies and this week agreed to settle fraud allegations with a payment of $631 million.
Democrats are, of course, checking out Frist's record on race. With minutes of Lott's resignation, a Democratic operative was e-mailing around a statement Frist is supposed to have made in his 1994 campaign. The quote originally appeared on the liberal writer Joshua Micah Marshal's Web site, "[Jim Sasser is] sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry ... While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry."
Trent Lott's fall accidentally but usefully focused attention on the Republican Party and race. It looks like the party will now turn to its newest "go to" guy to find a cure for that condition.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
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