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Frist's BlackBerry Spring

I must admit, I am sort of a connoisseur of leadership in the U.S. Senate. It's a particular kind of skill, very different from executive leadership, because everyone you're trying to lead is an equal, and most of them are prima donnas in one way or another. If it's a corporate cliche to say that leadership involves listening, it is absolutely, literally true in the Senate. Bob Dole and George Mitchell were both superb Senate leaders for that reason, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle probably just a step below. But they were pretty well matched to each other, looking at it purely as a matter of skill.

But I suspect that we are witnessing the first real mismatch in leadership skills in a long time, in Harry Reid vs. Bill Frist. I think Reid might have pulled off something amazing yesterday, holding out the card of compromise on the Nuclear Option at just the moment when he knew that Frist could least accept it -- because he put himself so far out on the limb by making it a theological matter -- and knowing that there are any number of Republican Senators who would desperately love to see some sort of compromise, and simultaneously making clear that if the trigger is pulled, Democrats will not "shut down the Senate," but instead try to force votes on issues in the Democratic agenda that Republicans would like to be protected from voting on. That's a pretty powerful one-two punch.

I was glad to see Kos note this tactical wizardry yesterday. Often I think that in the Daily Kos community, which I will characterize not so much as the left of the party but the side that wants the Democrats to be very aggressive in opposition, there is a tendency to be quite absolutist about tactics: "never compromise," for example. "Never compromise" limits your freedom of action just as surely as "always compromise," and thus makes it harder to take advantage of opportunities to win. This is a very good example. It was a good idea not to try to compromise on Social Security in January-March, when the White House hadn't even offered its own plan, but there might be another moment when compromise is just the right move. In this case, at this moment, it was brilliant.

See this article from the Nation, for an example of getting it exactly wrong by making "never compromise" an iron law of opposition.

You can overanalyze Frist's inadequacies, but I think it's very simple: He doesn't know where his votes are. He doesn't quite know where his votes are on Bolton, he doesn't quite know where they are on the Nuclear Option. Knowing where your votes are doesn't just mean knowing how your members would vote if it happened today, it's knowing which ones might be shaky if any of a dozen other events occurs and what's going on with Senators on the other side. It's a matter of keeping hundreds and hundreds of pieces of constantly changing information in your head.

And you can only do that if you're talking face to face with every single one of your own members and many of the others, all the time. And Frist doesn't do that. Nina Easton of the Boston Globe recently quoted political scientist Sarah Binder:

''He's a BlackBerry addict," Binder noted, referring to his electronic communications with senators. ''That's not how Lyndon Johnson got it done. It takes face-to-face interaction."

The BlackBerry is a great thing -- I had one for a while and I miss it. It might be a good way to run a company. But not the Senate. Frist has other problems, too, like having Trent Lott second-guessing him and his surgeon arrogance. But the bottom line is that as long as he doesn't know where his votes are, he will be extremely vulnerable, and slowly Democrats will gain subtle control of the agenda.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 27, 2005 | Permalink


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I think that the compromise issue is one where Democrats need to be careful, and the reason is that what was called compromise post 9/11 was actually concession or capitulation. Compromise should not be about extracting a price but coming to a mutually agreeable decision. What the Democrats were giving us was by and large concession.

This problem tripped up Emanuel Cleaver's primary challenger. He said he wouldn't compromise with Republicans when it seemed he was actually concerned with not conceding issues to them.

Posted by: Zach | Apr 27, 2005 12:34:13 PM

Apropos of compromise: in John Lukac's book "Five Days in London: May 1940", my reading of it was that at the moment of triumph in France, if Hitler had publicly offered a compromise peace with Britain, Churchill (the non-compromiser) would have been hard-pressed to avoid acceptance. But Hitler felt that the victor shouldn't make the first move; instead, he waited for the losers to start the negotiations off. But that Churchill would never do.

A shrewdly offered compromise at the right instant might have a drastic effect. Whether or not it is accepted or accepable.

Posted by: Robert the Red | Apr 27, 2005 1:57:23 PM

A shrewdly offered compromise at the right instant might have a drastic effect.

But Reid knows that Frist can't take the compromise in question. And if he somehow does, it's still a win for Reid (no nuclear option, Frist dealing with his backlash).

Compromise should not be about extracting a price but coming to a mutually agreeable decision.

Well, lots of things 'should' be. (And 'compromise' is not an abstract 'issue'.) In case you haven't noticed, this is political war. I share your disgust at some Dem spinelessness in recent years (not just after 9/11!), believe me. But this kind of stuff Reid is doing is the opposite of that. The Dems aren't backing down, they're making the other side back down, bit by bit. I don't want to get too excited about it, but it is a beautiful thing.

And, in a way, this post and the previous one should be taken as a set. Mark makes an absolutely key point about all of this in the 'Powell' post:

One of my convictions......is that we on the left often think that the right's ideas and institutions are much more tightly coordinated, planned and unitary than they really are. And for those who hold the structural view -- that is, that the left can achieve comparable political success by emulating the organizations and tactics of the right -- this leads to a misconception that our own structures must be similarly planned and coordinated.

That is so true, from a general POV and the more narrowly 'structural' one. We constantly overestimate our opponents' 'soft' power, and they're glad to let us do it (eg the nomination of Kerry is a perfect example of Dems telegraphing their fear). The basic defense against a confidence game is a subtle but profound change of thinking: you must see through, lose respect for, the con man. Never mind if the country at large doesn't see it, it is vital strategically that YOU see it. I know it's hard when that man is the president, and you can't lose respect for the office; but a very large part of a con's power is power you either give or withhold. I am fed up with 'cw' from the center-left a la: '..you've got to hand it to him, that Rove is a smart guy'. He is not very smart at all, but simply intelligent and more deeply cynical than others in his position have dared to be (and for good reason, on their parts). I don't doubt his skill, but...so what? Skill to what end? Chaos? That's not what I call smart. This jury-rigged GOP coalition is and has been more vulnerable, in many ways, than we have tended to credit. I contend that piercing the rather selective veil of respectablity/'comity' (Reid calling Greenspan a 'political hack' was a milestone), calling these people's bluff, will be immensely empowering for us. You must go at a con head-on. There is no other way.

thanks (as always) for the great posts, Mark.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Apr 27, 2005 5:46:09 PM

What Jonny said. Great post Mark.

Posted by: Eric Martin | Apr 27, 2005 7:39:18 PM

[File under requests...]

Any comments on what the sudden postponement of Foreign Relations' Bolton vote has to say about Senate culture? The Washington Note says "Lawyers are now considering various mechanisms by which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might be circumvented to take the nomination directly to the floor of the Senate..." Given Frist's unsuccessful judicial strategery does this seem at all likely to work?

Posted by: Patience | Apr 28, 2005 9:58:53 AM

[File under requests...]

Any comments on what the sudden postponement of Foreign Relations' Bolton vote has to say about Senate culture? The Washington Note says "Lawyers are now considering various mechanisms by which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee might be circumvented to take the nomination directly to the floor of the Senate..." Given Frist's unsuccessful judicial strategery does this seem at all likely to work?

Posted by: Patience | Apr 28, 2005 9:59:50 AM

Here's another thing:

from 2000ish-2004, the Democratic House leader was focused more on his Presidential chances than on being an effective leader of the House Democrats, and from 2002-2004, the Democratic Senate leader was focused more on holding onto his seat than on being an effective leader of the Senate Democrats. This was not true on the Republican side.

Now the Republicans have an inordinately powerful House majority leader who's main focus is clining to power, and a Senate majority leader who has his eyes more on the 2008 primaries than anything else. Whereas the Democrats have Pelosi, who's not perfect but is in a safe district & is a real liberal & has no plans to run for President, and Reid and Durbin, who are mainly interested in helping the Democrats in the Senate and who are real pros at what they're doing.

Posted by: Katherine | Apr 28, 2005 3:22:39 PM

I have to question, though, why you think Daschle was effective. I have never seen a leader worse at imposing party discipline. It's to the point where half the caucus bolts on bankruptcy even though voters do NOT support that bill even in red states, and six members bolt on Gonzales even as Reid and Durbin fight it as strongly as they can. Reid's done an amazing job getting unity on social security and judicial nominations, and he was right to prioritize those, but he had to pay a higher price in other areas than he should have because of Daschle's laxity.

Posted by: Katherine | Apr 28, 2005 3:25:40 PM

johnnybutter - that might be the best post in any comments section I've ever seen; very well put

Posted by: Charlie T. | Apr 28, 2005 10:34:50 PM

Thank you Charlie C - and I realize that I was going beyond what Mark was explicitly saying (he said that the Right was less centrally organized and less unitary (libertarian/christian split) than some of us might assume). I'm just suggesting we run with that ball, quit being so damned spooked, quit merely reacting to the repubs. Some of the power we're up against is definitely illusory.

I kind of agree with Katherine about Daschle. Wrong person for the time (although that's terribly easy for ME to say). Maybe the commonplace about the dems - 'they didn't fully realize at that point that they were really an opposition party' - was partially exemplified by Daschle. Also, it was not just that he was vulnerable in his state. I think he, like a lot of late 80s-90s dems, was a bit compromised anyway; not to throw the easy rotten tomato, but it means something that his wife was a corporate lobbyist. When the gop finally stumbles, the dems need to be there as a real alternative, not as a nicer, cleaner, less-compromised version of the gop. I don't mean dems need necessarily to be radical policy-wise, but they'll need to be CLEAN.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Apr 29, 2005 12:21:04 PM

This is not strictly on topic, but I would like to suggest another reason the Bush machine is sputtering right now: lack of an enemy.
Bush and Rove are VERY good at getting things done by demonizing the opposition, whether it be Osama, Kerry or Saddam. Now, however, there is a lack of recognizable targets. Since Reid is new to the public, he has been able to control how the public views him, and his tough as nails persona is very upfront, and not susceptible to the usual attacks. Imagine if Daschle were still minority leader in the Senate. You would hear a constant drumbeat about the unpatriotic, obstructionist Democratic leadership, and it would gain traction, because people already accepted that truth about Daschle.

Bush was always bad on defense. The subtle corollary is that he is also bad when there is no opponent to attack. Need I remind you that he will not even say Osama's name in public because of the humiliation of not capturing him?
The victory of Daschle in November deprived Bush of one of his most potent weapons.
I suspect there is some real regret at having made Reid the opposition leader.

Posted by: marky | Apr 29, 2005 11:44:05 PM

Bush and co. are definitely making it up as they go along, marky, no doubt about it. Good points about Daschle/Reid. And you are so right that Bush is bad on defence. Illusory power....catch it!

Posted by: jonnybutter | Apr 30, 2005 3:17:49 AM

I don't know how long Harry Reid has been in the Senate, but Bill Frist is very much a neophyte who is in over his head. His main accomplishment at this point in his life is to have been born into one of the richest families in Nashville, period. He hasn't shown any political sense, other than to allow Karl Rove to make a puppet of him. Frist seems to be thinking "It worked for W and it can work for me." I don't think so. Bill needs to come home and pretend to be a heart surgeon again, build himself a 12 million dollar house like his brother did, work out at the Frist-built Centennial Sportsplex, enjoy art at the Frist Center, drop in at HCA headquarters to check out the damage it has done to our healthcare system, even visit whatever it the Frists built at Princeton. But don't try to be the majority leader, and god forbid, don't run for president.

Posted by: Mud | Apr 30, 2005 8:24:00 PM

re Frist and vote counts, one of the things I remember most clearly about Watergate was Neil McNeil, Newsweek (I think) Congressional correspondent, who was on Washington Week in Review every week, always saying that "Tip O'Neill can count." He had the votes, he knew it, and so did the other side.

Posted by: L Becker | Apr 30, 2005 10:05:31 PM

Re: Frist's intelligence
There are a number of medical jokes about the relative intelligence of surgeons - the basic theme is usually neurologist> internists> surgeons> orthopedists. In essence, getting through medical school requires a good memory and getting through a surgical residency requires enormous stamina and good manual dexterity. Only the memory part might be marginally relevant to his present job. What was not required previously -understatement of the year- cardiovascular surgeons are the ultimate prima donnas- was the ability to interact well with others as equals.

Posted by: JillR | May 1, 2005 1:40:12 AM

I forgot to mention, I'm an internist.

Posted by: JillR | May 1, 2005 1:41:04 AM

the ability to interact well with others as equals.

Which is why pediatricians trump them all (plays well with others; used to dealing with children)!

Great post. I would point out, however, that the BlackBerry is a sucky way to run a business, too.

Posted by: DemFromCT | May 1, 2005 9:07:37 AM

1. What's best for the nation? Congress people who are puppets of special interest groups and never compromise or sensible people who wish to avoid national collapse? Not all compromises are wise, not all messages typed on typewriters are decent- should we destroy all typewriters and computer printers?
2. The Democrats have big problems. They consistently endorse a Middle Eastern war that creates more terrorists and drains money away from healthcare, law enforcement and education. We are sending prisoners to Uzbekistan to be tortured and boiled alive, behaving much worse with our Muslim captives than we ever did in WWII. They lack the gonads to say stop the torture, stop the wasteful war. We have lots of killing here in LA- drive by shootings in South Central, random shootings on the freeways- this is a great society? Missouri is shutting down Medicaid at a time when prices are rising and wages are falling. The Republicans enjoyed great success with the culture war, ranting about the elite and the windsurfing straddler from Massachusetts, but it's getting harder. People are increasingly worried about jobs and pensions.
3. Read the essay by Thomas Frank, What's The matter with liberals (May 12 NYRB)? Kerry followed Rove's liberal elitist script to a T. Now look at Frist- he, like Kerry, makes Steve Forbes look like a smoothie. He can’t carry the Red flag. The NASCAR crowd, increasingly worried about their jobs, will find it harder and harder to believe that judges who are fanatically anti-New Deal (Owens for example) are what they need. Look at Harry Reid, not your rich overeducated stiff. Reid let the FBI videotape Jack Gordon offering him a bribe, and then, according to a Las Vegas Review-Journal account, he "put his hands around Gordon's neck and said, 'You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me.'" That's right, Reid once tried to strangle LaToya Jackson's future husband-manager. Gordon went to jail for trying to bribe the chairman of Nevada's Gaming Control Board (Reid) in 1978, and later made a career promoting LaToya, Paula Jones, Lorena Bobbitt and a lounge singer who claims to be Elvis Presley's illegitimate son. Reid has repeatedly said that Alan Greenspan is one of the worst political hacks in America, which is true. He is not pro-abortion. I'd say that Reid is worth ten Daschles and twenty Kerrys. He'll never be President, he knows it and that's good- it keeps him on track.

Posted by: anciano | May 1, 2005 2:29:32 PM

I forgot to mention, I'm an internist.
Ah, well...you can always hope to one day grow up to be a neurologist, I suppose.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates | May 10, 2005 4:00:59 PM