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Expect Dr. Frist To Pay House Calls To Hispanics, Soccer Moms
January 5, 2003
Out with the Old South's Trent Lott and his 1948 ideals. In with the new voice of the Republican Party: a Tennessee doc whose oath of "first, do no harm" carries political capital, particularly among two groups the GOP wants to court and keep, Hispanics and soccer moms.
Republicans are banking on Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Harvard-trained heart- and lung-transplant surgeon, to once and for all bury the Democrats' criticism that the GOP plays the race card to garner white Southerners' votes and seal a win. Tricky Dick Nixon started the "Southern Strategy" and won. Georgia's Newt Gingrich moved it to anti-immigrant hysteria in the 1990s, only to fall flat as the party's "compassionate conservative" wing, led by the Brothers Bush, took flight.
Still, some old dogs were comforted by the old tricks. Lott was outed for saying at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party Dec. 5 that the nation "wouldn't have had all these problems" if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948. Something about Thurmond's Dixiecrat Party's segregationist platform caused a firestorm of criticism, and not just from African-Americans. Several prominent Republicans, particularly those from liberal Northeastern states, got out front and blasted Lott's off-the-cuff remarks.
Lott, who said his praise was aimed at Thurmond's strong stand on national defense, took too long to apologize. Then he apologized ad nauseum, morphing into an affirmative-action panderer at record speed.
Democrats hated to see him go. They would have loved to see him stay as the Republican leader in the Senate. How better to counter President Bush's talk of compassionate conservatism than to have the GOP speak for itself through Lott?
Bush ain't no Yaley for nuthin', though. He may have grown up in Midland, Texas, but his daddy's New England roots are solid Rockefeller Republican. Bush knows the issues that resonate in suburbia and the barrios. The Republican Party may not be able to bring back blacks to the party of Abe Lincoln, but to stay in power it can't lose the growing number of Hispanics it has courted or reopen the gender gap Bush has worked hard to close.
Talk that harks back to the good ol' days smacks of bad ol' racism. Soccer moms who benefited from the women's movement and Hispanics who want to live the American Dream don't care for such talk.
The president, to his credit, never bought into the immigrant-bashing that consumed the Republicans in the mid-1990s when Gingrich led the House. As Texas governor, Bush criticized Gingrich's GOP-led Congress for taking away benefits from immigrants, for trying to punish those who work the toughest jobs that few Americans want. There are big-business payoffs to such largesse, of course, which pleases the GOP's corporate wing.
Democrats grouse that Frist's voting record is Atilla the Hun Lite. No kidding. He's as conservative as they come -- anti-abortion rights, pro-trickle-down tax cuts, a partisan who has voted for the GOP agenda 97 percent of the time. But Frist is also a pragmatist and a vote counter, and he knows that 50 senators, even adding the vice president's vote, don't add up to the 60 votes he would need to stop a filibuster.
He's also a doctor who lives compassionate conservatism, who has spent congressional recess time in Africa operating on sick kids. In Congress, Frist has worked with Democrats to craft compromises on education, on money to fight AIDS globally, and he hopes to finally fix Medicare so that the elderly can afford prescription drugs.
Democrats, meantime, are still searching for a message that resonates with voters and an army of messengers who can deliver it with passion. Republicans have found their message in compassionate conservatism and a president to deliver it from the heart even if his actions don't always back up his words. Frist, the healer, has a lot of house calls to make.