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October 3, 2005

Frist: Falling Star or Republican Nominee?

Tony Coppola

      Last week, it became public that Senate Majority Leader and 2008 presidential hopeful Bill Frist (R-TN) was being investigated for insider trading. Over the summer, Frist, sold his shares of HCA, a company his father started. Just weeks after he sold it, the stock plummeted, and now investigators are wondering whether insider tips led to his decision to sell his shares. Frist claims, however, that he sold the stock due to a conflict of interests, as HCA is for-profit hospital that has interests in healthcare-related bills that Frist votes on as Senator. While this will certainly not help his chances at securing the White House in '08, many political pundits believe Frist's public life is over anyway. He will not be running for reelection in '06, and he has annoyed the conservative Christian base of the Republican Party by announcing he will support federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Assuming Frist is cleared of insider trading, I urge political pundits not to write off Mr. Frist so fast.

      Admittedly, the Christian Right, which is strongly opposed to embryonic stem-cell research, is the strongest voice in the modern Republican Party. In fact, there is a Christian Right organization that has already ran ads against him in Iowa, the nation's first Republican primary or caucus. On the other hand, the vast majority of Americans are in favor of stem-cell research. It is not like abortion or gay marriage where the issue divides the country. The average American agrees that embryonic stem-cells have the potential to save lives and are willing to put this potential above their concerns that human embryos are being destroyed in the process. Consequently, it will be extremely difficult for leaders of the Christian Right to convince other Republicans not to vote for Senator Frist due to his support for the funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Although Frist supports embryonic stem-cell research, he has made numerous concessions to the conservative Christian base.

      First this past Spring, Frist pushed the idea of trying to abolish the filibuster so that Senate could quickly push through any Supreme Court nominee. Although he was thwarted by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, by acting like he was willing to kill the filibuster he endeared himself to Christian Right. In addition, Frist has come out in favor of teaching the theory of intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. While many the view the very idea of teaching intelligent design in public schools as a crime against science, the majority of Americans do not believe in evolution and at the very least support the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative. Therefore, his support of intelligent design is a stance that curries favor among the Christian base of the Republican Party while not alienating himself from the majority of Americans. Finally, Frist, a medical doctor, strongly opposed removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, falsely claiming that she had a chance at recovery. Although they are lobbying against him right now and would rather have someone more strongly in their camp, if the Christian Right feels that Frist gives the Republicans the best chance to win, they will support Frist, as he has supported them and most of their policies. One of the Christian Right's own ran in 1988—Pat Robertson—and in 2000—Gary Bauer—and the Christian Right supported both Bushes in the Republican primaries because they thought they had better chances to win. Speaking of George W. Bush, he—like Frist—was not always well-liked by the Christian Right in his road to the White House and came under fire many times in his reign as Texas governor. The question is will Frist's support from the Christian Right have the potential to alienate moderate Republicans in the general election?

      Clearly, this must concern Frist, but here his stance on embryonic stem-cell research comes back into play. When moderates in '08 primary accuse him of being part and parcel of the Christian Right for his stances on teaching intelligent design and his attempt to end the filibuster, he will be point to his stance on embryonic stem-cell research. In addition, he never pulled the trigger on the so-called "nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster. Consequently, Frist will no doubt claim that he had the votes to end the filibuster but instead allowed moderate Republicans and Democrats to compromise. Senators Allen (R-VA) and Brownback (R-KS) will try to follow his lead of playing to both moderates and conservative Christians, and it will certainly be a tough fight for the 2008 GOP nomination. Pundits, however, should be careful to write Dr. Frist off so early on.

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