There’s an old Tip O’Neill political axiom that says, “All politics is local.”
Well, not necessarily. It’s been a long time coming, but a recent story in The Wall Street Journal highlights an increasingly fascinating contrast between Tennessee’s two Republican U.S. senators, Fred Thompson and Bill Frist.
The story, headlined “Senator, Surgeon, and Samaritan” was a saccharine account of Dr. Frist’s recent do-gooding in Africa, where he has operated on all manner of needy boy soldiers and others in dire medical straits. “It’s a simple operation,” Frist told WSJ writer Al Hunt with seeming humility about operating on a hernia victim. But, he went on, “Without it, they die.” Hunt went on to characterize Frist as a possible replacement for Vice President Dick Cheney on the 2004 ticket, given Cheney’s chronic heart scares.
Frist’s African relief efforts, of course, can only be considered noble. Cynicism on that front is unwarranted. However, Frist is clearly not bashful about taking credit for such good works. After all, there’s an undeniable truth in national politicsor local politics, for that matterwhich says that everything’s about the credit.
Ronald Reagan used to have a sign in his office when he was president that read, “There is no limit to what you can accomplish as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” But politicians do care. “Ninety percent of what goes on behind closed doors before an announcement is about who’s going to get credit for what, not about the announcement itself,” a prominent U.S. Senate staffer once told the Scene.
Such Fristian good deeds, accompanied by the praiseful scribblings of Beltway chroniclers like Albert Hunt, are starting to become standard for Tennessee’s junior senator. He is, as well, currently in the middle of the national and highly charged stem-cell debate and has become a confidant of President Bush (and doesn’t mind bragging about it).
All of this is by way of getting to the more interesting point: that Frist has more clout than Thompson in Washington but much less clout than Thompson in Tennessee. It’s not that he’s unpopular here, but rather that he plays second fiddle to his colleague, who seems, ironically enough, to care much less than Frist does about how people perceive him.
It’s worth noting that Frist’s office let the locals know about his previous work in Africa, although not this time around. It could be that Frist is slowly beginning his political separation from the state in preparation for the national stagein which case, people like Albert Hunt are good friends to have.
The Democratic leadership in the U.S. has long known that when a tough vote comes, they can count on U.S. Rep. Bob Clement to be one of the first ones over the side, making common cause with the Republicans.
Leaders generally will cut some slack over this sort of craven self-preservation for a member from a tough swing district. But for somebody with a safe district like Clement, it’s a lot tougher to take.
Consequently, it should have come as no surprise that Clement was one of the 15 Democrats who deserted the party recently in voting with the Republicans on the faith-based social service programs bill. In doing so, he joined his suburban counterpart, Bart Gordon, and crypto-Republican conservative fornicator Gary Condit in breaking with the Democratic Party.
But there is an irony here. While the easy temptation is to say that it was just another case of Little Bob at it again, his vote wasn’t all that bad. While the issue of faith-based social services is problematicand there are some good reasons for the charities themselves to shy away from the programit shouldn’t be a matter of partisan alignment. It should be another constructive step in a national dialogue over improving the way society addresses its most intractable problems.
In that regard, Clement isn’t alone in seeing some merits. After all, the Democrats’ standard bearer in the last election, Al Gore, supported the concept.
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This is exactly why we have juries.