After all the glowing words surrounding the Senate “compromise” in which the Republicans folded their hand despite holding all the high cards, it is worth taking a look at who won what and why.
The biggest winner is Sen. John McCain, who again sold out both principles and party, to the applause of the mainstream media. Not only is he assured good publicity, he has pulled the rug from under Majority Leader Bill Frist, his probable chief rival for the GOP’s 2008 presidential nomination.
Winning a showdown with the Democrats by using the so-called “nuclear option” to stop the filibustering of judicial nominees would have given Mr. Frist the kind of name-recognition Mr. McCain already has and would be a major achievement to solidify support of the conservative Republican base.
Now, having been blindsided by the McCain mutiny, Mr. Frist looks ineffective as majority leader and questionable as a potential president of the United States.
Those who claim Mr. McCain has forfeited support of the Republican base by selling out his party must not realize Mr. McCain never had that base’s support in the first place, as shown by their votes in the 2000 Republican primaries.
Arizona’s Mr. McCain lost nothing. If Hillary Clinton is the Democrats’ candidate in 2008, what alternative would the Republican base have? Vote for Hillary?
If nothing else, Mr. McCain undermined Mr. Frist’s authority as Senate majority leader and made himself the media’s favorite Republican. Regardless of whether that can be cashed in for a presidential nomination, Mr. McCain has raised his stock and lowered that of Mr. Frist. He is in a position to rule or ruin.
Is Mr. Frist a weak majority leader or does he just not have the troops required to get the job done? Mr. Frist is a surgeon, but he can’t transplant backbone to Senate Republicans who haven’t any. A Senate majority leader today may or may not be able to rule with an iron hand, the way Lyndon Johnson did when he held that title a half-century ago.
I don’t know Mr. Frist but I know someone in his home state of Tennessee who knows and thinks highly of him. I am inclined to think highly of him myself, though I met him in person only once, when we sat at a dinner table in the White House with the president of Kenya and Laura Bush, among others.
I was struck that Mr. Frist mentioned he was familiar with Kenya from having been there during one of his trips to perform surgery on African children. Being a humane and decent man is not something to sneeze at. But in politics the question about decent people is whether they are on guard enough against people who are not so decent.
Mr. Frist may have expected he could rely on his Senate friends to stick with him in a showdown. But Harry Truman once said if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Those of us who are not privy to what goes on behind the scenes cannot know how savvy or how tough a majority leader Mr. Frist is. He may get all the mileage he can out of the kind of people who make up the Senate’s Republican contingent.
Being the leader of Republican senators who include John McCain, Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe, among others with minimal or nonexistent party loyalty, cannot be a picnic. Moreover, even if Mr. Frist is an effective leader, that is not enough unless he also looks like an effective leader — which he certainly does not at the moment.
As for any presidential ambitions, the Republicans have often had more people who would make good presidents than they have had people who would make good presidential candidates — and that is what you have to be to reach the White House.
This is a low point. But it has long been axiomatic that “in politics, overnight is a lifetime.” It is a long time before the 2008 elections. In political terms, there is still time before the next Supreme Court nominee reaches the Senate, even if that happens this year. How that time is used is what matters.
Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.