Friday, December 23, 2005

O Leader! My Leader!

Bloomberg News has a story today advancing the possibility that the recent GOP flops in the Senate will negatively impact Majority Leader Bill Frist's campaign for president, should he decide to run in 2008. It ledes:
Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last week rejected anything less than a full renewal of the Bush administration's anti-terror legislation. He said he had ``made it very clear'' he wouldn't accept a temporary extension of the USA Patriot Act, as Democrats were demanding.

Six days later, after threatening to allow the law to lapse, Frist accepted a short extension of the law. The Republican leader was forced to swallow that reversal because eight members of his own party had joined with Democrats to support an extension.
It is entirely possible that the recent defections in the GOP will undermine Frist's ability to seem like a potential presidential candidate, which could limit financing and serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, like a lot of "end of the year: what can we do?" stories, this one falls apart before it even gets going.

The most prominent "expert" referenced is Charles Cook:
The Dec. 21 defeat capped a year of setbacks for Frist, whose leadership has been weakened by a series of missteps, divisions within his own Senate Republican caucus and a probe of his stock trades by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most Capitol Hill observers now regard Frist as ``the weakest majority leader in perhaps 50 years,'' said Charles Cook, editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Cook's eye-catching quote, deeming this the weakest leader in 50 years, shows little appreciation for the true, inherent limits within the position of majority leader. The Senate's own website references the odd position; a rank that sounds like power but is truly power of a limited sort:
Although party floor leadership posts carry great responsibility, they provide few specific powers. Instead, floor leaders have largely had to depend on their individual skill, intelligence, and personality. Majority leaders seek to balance the needs of senators of both parties to express their views fully on a bill with the pressures to move the bill as quickly as possible toward enactment. These conflicting demands have required majority leaders to develop skills in compromise, accommodation, and diplomacy. Lyndon Johnson, who held the post in the 1950s, once said that the greatest power of the majority leader was "the power of persuasion."
Cook's comment implies the position has a storied lineage of power over the decades, which it does, but this is a recent innovation in our political system. It is a position of power because it is a podium and it can sway the purse strings. The media fixes its gaze on the leader, and so the leader becomes a leader. In the bid to see who is in charge, the leader promises that he can get things done. If people believe him, he or she becomes the leader.

The Senate's summary states that the majority leader must "develop skills in compromise, accommodation, and diplomacy." Has Senator Frist demonstrated those skills in working with the Democrats and defecting GOP members? Most certainly not. The man is not seeking reelection, and he will be a candidate for the presidency. He is acting in an un-leader like manner precisely for these reasons. Bloomberg and Cook have their concepts inverted.

Frist is stepping down in a public, political sense. He is standing alongside the base with the primaries in mind. "Stem cells?" you may ask. Doctors make for good donors for this potential president and medical doctor.


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