frank_talk (2006-49)

We Need a Politician

Frist demonstrates why political skills are handy for a politician

by Frank Cagle

Last week Senate Majority Leader Doctor Bill Frist announced what everyone else has known for a couple of years—he has no prayer of being elected president in 2008 and thus, will not run. Being an empty suit and having no core values were not necessarily a disqualification, otherwise the current field would be narrowed a great deal. Frist’s problem is that he has absolutely no political skills, which are a prerequisite to running for the highest political office in the land.

Frist was one of the new breed of elected officials, primarily Republicans, who have run for office proud of the fact they can substitute personal wealth for experience and that they are not politicians. No one assumes former Gov. Ned McWherter, who spent his life in politics, could drop by Vanderbilt Hospital some afternoon and perform a heart transplant. But it is popular lore that politicians are the last people you want practicing, well, politics.

In the recent U.S. Senate race, proponents of Bob Corker cited his success in business and contrasted him with 10-year-veteran Congressman Harold Ford Jr., who “never had a job but politics.” Using that logic Tennessee should never have elected some other people who have spent their entire careers in public service. Let’s see. Howard Baker? Lamar Alexander? Al Gore? McWherter? Corker has had some experience, as a one-term mayor, which gives him an advantage Frist never had.

Politics isn’t just about elections, political parties, television commercials and blasting the opposition. Politics is the art of building consensus to execute public policy. People who are good at it are successful, and they make for successful public policy. People who are bad at it ought to go back to doing other things—like being a medical missionary.

Bad politicians, especially of the crooked and arrogant variety, have given politicians a bad name. God knows I’ve criticized enough of them. But it was the political skills they possessed that will ensure that Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan go down in history as successful presidents.

Frist used his personal wealth to run a good campaign and he rode the Republican wave of 1994 into the U.S. Senate. Before he ran for office, Frist had not been involved in politics, and indeed had never voted. He never spent any time on a city council, county commission or in the legislature. One recalls the line from that old pol, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in a discussion about the Harvard intellectuals that comprised President John Kennedy’s Brain Trust. Rayburn said he’d feel a lot better if one of them had ever run for sheriff just once.

This is not to say there aren’t people who have the natural skills to be successful in public office at the get-go—like Fred Thompson. Or that there aren’t people like Don Sundquist, who spent a long time in politics and never got the hang of it. But most successful public officials have had on-the-job training, have developed skills and have a sense of how to move public opinion to support public policy.

Frist might have used his medical skills to good effect as a Senate committee chair, offering suggestions on improving health care, reforming the FDA or any one of many health care issues. Instead, he found himself, through a fluke of history, as the Senate Majority Leader. If there is any place in public life that requires extremely sharp political skills it is managing a legislative body. In Baker’s memorable phrase, it’s like herding cats.

With Frist’s departure the Republicans in the U.S. Senate have turned to two of the most effective politicians within their midst, putting Mitch McConnell in as minority leader and bringing back Trent Lott. Frist’s failures as majority leader did not come from a lack of intellect. His deficiencies came from his utter lack of experience as a politician. He was a natural to work with President Bush’s administration.

Bush and the Republican machine have demonstrated an ability to win elections—up until the mid-term fiasco. But Bush, as a wartime president, has been a dismal failure as a politician: a politician in the sense of communicating a message, being inclusive and bringing people along to achieve a common goal. He has also demonstrated a woeful lack of ability to simply administer the government, whether in prosecuting a war or delivering hurricane relief.

The next president of the United States needs to be able to bring the country together, having the skills to bridge the partisan divide that has turned our politics toxic. We will go into 2008 still involved in an ongoing war on terror that requires national unity and a united front.

For 2008, regardless of political party, what we need in a president is a good politician.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .