February 10, 2006
Frist Forecasts '06 Campaign Based On '02, '04 Themes
By Mort Kondracke

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) says that Republicans will fight the 2006 campaign by combining 2002-style attacks on Democrats as "weak on security," 2004-ish attacks on "obstructionism" and a new line of argument that "Democrats have no ideas."

He told me in an interview that the GOP also will have an agenda that emphasizes "securing" what voters hold dear - freedom, the homeland, health care and prosperity - plus reform and solving the country's long-term problems.

The agenda includes lobbying reform, legal reform, border security, competitiveness, "tax increase prevention" and reductions in Medicare growth (which he termed "not cuts").

Frist said "we can't set our expectations too high" for specific accomplishments because of "a short legislative calendar," and because of Democratic "slow-rolling and obstruction."

"It's a tough environment right now," he acknowledged about the coming election year, "but I am confident that we will maintain the majority" because "the Democrats have no ideas, no policies to put forward," while Republicans do. (Extensive portions of the interview with Frist will be published in Monday's Roll Call policy briefing, "State of the Union: Congress Responds.")

In September 2002, when Frist was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he told me that Democratic delays in creating the Department of Homeland Security focus "attention to issues we are stronger on - defense, patriotism, support for the military."

With Frist approving tough ads that ran against Democrats such as then-Sen. Max Cleland (Ga.), the GOP picked up two seats and won back majority control, propelling Frist toward leadership of his party.

This year, the Democrats, by objecting to President Bush's National Security Agency surveillance program, "again are positioning themselves as weak on national security, weak on defense, weak on protection of moms and dads and kids in their households around the country, rejecting the president's responsibility to protect us here in our homeland.

"I don't fully understand their position, especially in a year when they're trying to rebuild," he said. Frist's view tracks with that of Bush political adviser Karl Rove, who said Democrats have a "pre-9/11 worldview" that's "not unpatriotic," but "profoundly wrong."

Frist said he'd been "fully briefed" on the NSA program and added, "I support it. It's constitutional and critical to the safety of the country," though he did say he'd consider upgrades to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act "to bring it into the 21st century."

In 2004, with Frist as Majority Leader, the GOP picked up four more seats, including that of Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), by labeling the opposition as "obstructionist."

Frist said Democrats are at it again, "as demonstrated by what we're seeing right now - the continuing postponement and obstruction of the asbestos bill," which would create a $140 billion fund for victims of lung disease and limit fees for trial lawyers.

"I think what the [Judge Samuel] Alito hearings [for the Supreme Court] showed is that the American people are weary of these insufferable attempts by Democrats to use obstruction, slow-rolling, postponement and delay of an agenda that would help them as individuals.

"It's a losing strategy for them, because you couple that with the lack of policy ideas that speak to the real needs of the American people, and there will be frustration and rejection."

Democrats say they will come forward with a positive alternative agenda - but not yet. Jim Manley, top communications aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), told me that "we've taken a page from [ex-Speaker] Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) playbook," noting that the GOP didn't release its "Contract with America" until September 1994, not long before they won control of the House.

The Democrats' major theme is - and apparently will remain - that under Republican control, Washington, D.C., is mired in "a culture of corruption." If and when lobbying reform is passed - Frist said, in early March - Democrats will go on to tie every GOP health, energy and entitlement proposal to "corrupt" interest groups that back it.

This is in keeping with the latest strategy memo released by Democratic operatives James Carville and Stan Greenberg, advising that at the moment, "Democrats are not seen as more ethical than the Republicans."

Yet, there is "a powerful opportunity to join the real-time battle as the voice of the public and public interest, critics of lobbyist influence, champions of bold reform and story-tellers about Washington - the place where corrupt lobbyists win out over the people on things that matter to people's lives.

"What bothers people the most about corruption is not the fouling of the process, but the impact on real things - energy prices, the Iraq war and Medicare reform. Those are 'facts' that upset people the most and the consequences that make the scandal real, and, indeed, Republican."

It was evidently in pursuit of this strategy that Reid issued a withering attack on the asbestos bill as allegedly lobbyist-created, only to be forced to back off when Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the bill's chief sponsor, raged at him and when Reid was criticized by The New York Times for protecting trial lawyers.

Frist said that "the Democrats' 'culture of corruption' theme really is in contrast to our pro-growth, secure-America's-prosperity, secure-America's-health agenda.

"Both need to be addressed," he said, starting with bipartisan action on lobbying reform and "aggressively addressing earmarks, which can be corrected and will be corrected."

He said he is committed to bring to the floor permanent repeal of the estate tax, extension of Bush's other tax cuts through 2010, an immigration bill and a medical malpractice overhaul. He also said there was strong bipartisan support for science and education upgrades to improve U.S. competitiveness. After Bush failed on Social Security last year - Frist blamed that on Democrats - "there will be some hesitation to take on Medicare reform, but I'm going to take it on," he said, as well as upgrading health information technology and closing health care disparities.

Judging by where things are headed, the 2006 election shapes up as a nasty, negative contest between Democrats shouting "corruption" and Republicans shouting "weak, obstructionist, no ideas." Voters can only hope that some day, politicians will get around to solving their real problems.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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