Thursday, September 28, 2006

Not what the doctor ordered

I'm usually not the biggest Dick Morris fan, but I think his column today on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is pretty spot on:

"Frist performed about as well as a heart surgeon with mittens on. He failed utterly to provide the leadership necessary and managed to so mangle the reputation of the legislative wing of the Republican Party in the process that it may take several elections, and perhaps a Hillary Clinton presidency, to recover. . .

He managed, despite a compliant House, a supportive president, and 55 votes, to pass very little and achieve almost nothing."
OK, maybe that is a little tough. But it is especially damning how much trouble Frist had getting things done with 55 votes. The last time the Republicans had more Senators was when they had 56 between 1929 and 1931 (note they also had 55 in the late 1990s, but that was when there was a Democratic president). If you are going to have trouble getting things done with that number of seats and a President and House of the same party, when exactly are you going to get stuff done? And before I hear that I'm not being fair from some proponent of Frist's quixotic presidential ambitions, I realize how tough the job is. He decided to take it on, however, and therefore we are right to analyze his performance. Are we only to expect effective leadership when the majority has 60+ votes? Of course not. Which brings us to how to improve things going forward:

"So what is the lesson for the future? A majority leader must not just be from the Senate. He must be of the Senate. He or she need not only sit in the body, but they must ooze its traditions, savor its tempo, grasp its inhibitions, and challenge its institutional lethargy. A good leader needs to grasp that each Senator is really more like a head of a country than a legislator. House members travel in groups. Senators walk alone and above it all. He needs to grasp what their political needs are and figure out how to appease them while, at the same time, leading them."
I think this is partly wrong. I'm of the mind that there is actually too much respect for the "traditions" of the Senate, and that what it needs is a little more shaking up. You might not like everything that a Tom Coburn does, for example, but at least he's trying to clear some of the cobwebs from the place. We somehow have slipped into this habit of thinking that things the Senate has done for a long time have some constitutional basis. Instead most of them simply fall under its ability to make its own rules. A party (or movement) confident about its positions and purpose should not be shy about advocating for changing such rules when needed. Remember, their constituency should not be incumbent Republican senators, but rather the people who put them there.

This lack of respect for Senate traditions on my part may raise hackles among conservative readers. Some will quickly remind me to be wary, for example, of curtailing the right to stop legislation (anonymous holds anyone?), lest we need to use such tools ourselves in the minority. I say the way to avoid that problem is to win elections, and the way to do that is to deliver on the campaign promises you make to get elected.

In the meantime, treating senators a bit more like "legislators" wouldn't hurt, either.

UPDATE: For the record, the flurry of legislation that came out of the Senate the past few days doesn't alter my feelings about Frist's leadership. I think a look at the whole tenure still supports what I said above.

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