WASHINGTON -- Dr. Bill Frist has discovered (if he hadn't already) that the first rule of politics is: "What have you done for me lately?"
The revelation came when the scientist in him finally overcame his political judgment and he declared he would back a House-passed bill stuck in the Senate that would increase federal support for stem-cell research. The announcement received general condemnation from the conservatives whose cause he had served well throughout much of his tenure as Senate majority leader.
Now those who have been touting him for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination have serious doubts about his future outside the operating rooms, where his skill is unquestioned.
But hold on a minute. Might not the good physician's last-minute decision have been a calculated move toward the center, where presidential hopes are most likely fulfilled? After all, it received huzzahs from any number of quarters and individuals, including former first lady Nancy Reagan, and placed him squarely among a majority of Americans who believe stem cells may hold the key to curing a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer's.
While that may be a strategy for presidential elections, it is not the best for winning the nod from a party whose base is decidedly to the right of middle and whose leading lights, including increasingly influential evangelical Christians, demand strict adherence to their dogma. For instance, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican leader, responded to Frist's decision by declaring that anyone who advocated "creating commodities out of embryos" would have a difficult time winning his party's presidential blessing.
It seems to make very little difference that the Tennessee lawmaker has led the charge on conservative positions, including helping to engineer passage of a bill that protects gun manufacturers from liability in the use of their products during the commission of a crime, giving the firearms industry an immunity from suit no one else has, including tobacco and airplane producers. Even though Frist is considered a staunch right-to-life advocate and has said that, after much thought, he has come to reconcile the use of embryos for the good of mankind, hard-right Christians continue to regard any deviation from the strict adherence to stem-cell opposition as heresy.
George W. Bush, who opposes expanding the federal contribution to stem-cell research, said he would veto the attempt to do so, placing him at direct odds with the Senate leader he had virtually handpicked after Trent Lott of Mississippi stepped down under pressure. Sponsors of the bill and several others were hoping that Frist's support would breach the dam that has kept the measure from consideration and that the senator eventually could convince the president not to veto the expansion bill. But Bush seemed to make it clear in a conversation with Frist that would not be the case.
Actually, the relationship between the president and Frist became strained earlier this year when the majority leader was virtually cut out of a compromise between Democratic and Republican moderates who broke the logjam over judicial nominees but still preserved the filibuster. Frist's relegation to the sidelines called into question his management abilities and left even his closest backers concerned he was not up to the commitment needed for winning his party's top nomination.
Frist has indicated that he will not seek re-election next year, presumably to begin full-out campaigning for the nomination. The Senate leadership, in fact the Senate itself, has not been a good platform from which to run for the White House. Only one member of the Senate has been elected directly to the presidency in the last 108 years, John F. Kennedy.
It seems inevitable the Tennessee physician would become conflicted in his position on this crucial medical issue. As one of the nation's most highly regarded heart-lung transplant specialists before running for election, Frist was bound to see the potential advantages of stem-cell research to medical science. As one dedicated to saving lives, he also has an understanding of when life actually begins. His chances of winning the nomination were never great. They are less so now. But then, his skills as a healer may just be more important than a further career in politics.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.