The wily new Senate majority leader.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 20 2002 6:56 PM

Supple Frist

The wily new Senate majority leader.

Doctor to the rescue
Doctor to the rescue

Trent Lott is out as Senate majority leader, Bill Frist is in, and interest groups in both parties are cranking up the spin. Some conservatives don't trust Frist because he proposed the stem-cell research funding plan that paved the way for President Bush's compromise on the issue last year. Some liberals accuse Frist of selling out to the right by supporting a total ban on cloning and accepting reductions in money for AIDS.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Both sides worry that Frist is too political. But politics has its virtues. When activists say they've been sold out, often it's because part of their agenda has been sold. It's been cut down and repackaged so that the House, the Senate, and the president will buy it. That's a big part of the job of a Senate majority leader. Frist is pretty good at it.

On two issues, Frist has been pivotal. One is AIDS. For two decades, Jesse Helms and other moral conservatives opposed all kinds of federal AIDS programs. They treated AIDS differently from other maladies because they saw it as a sexual disease, a product of reckless behavior.

Frist helped change that. He separated AIDS in adults from AIDS in children. On general AIDS funding legislation, he teamed up with Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. But when it came to kids, he teamed up with Helms. The legislation they sponsored offered $500 million to fight transmission of HIV from pregnant women in Africa to their children.

Helms continued to blame adult AIDS on the "homosexual lifestyle." But Frist wasn't trying to change Helms' views. He was trying to get Helms' support, and he succeeded. Frist also spun African AIDS as a terrorist issue—arguing that kids orphaned by the disease would be susceptible to terrorist recruitment—in order to generate broader interest in the issue. Even Franklin Graham, the Muslim-baiting evangelist son of Billy Graham, worked with Frist to send aid to African children with HIV.

Bush signed the Frist-Helms bill, but only after bargaining Frist down to $200 million. AIDS activists complained that the money was too little and too narrowly targeted. Frist saw it differently: He had put the issue on the president's agenda and, while accepting a lower number in the first year, had secured a pledge to spend the remaining $300 million in subsequent years. It was classic Frist: taking half a loaf now while reserving the option to take the other half later.

On stem cells, Frist struck a similar bargain. In July 2001, he proposed to let scientists use federal money for embryonic stem-cell research but only on cell lines already derived. A month later, Bush announced a similar policy. Bush didn't consult Frist, but given the resemblance and the fact that Frist had been advising Bush on medical issues, Frist's plan seemed an obvious trial balloon for Bush's. Referring to White House aides, Frist dryly observed, "I believe they are familiar with my position."

In April 2002, Frist came out for a ban on research cloning. Liberals and biotech lobbyists cried foul. They insinuated that Frist was flip-flopping and knuckling under to pro-lifers to advance his career. But there was no contradiction. Frist's stem-cell proposal had included anti-cloning language. In a Washington Post op-ed, he explained how senators could support the former practice without the latter.

Again, Frist took half the loaf without conceding the rest. Cloning couldn't be justified "at this point in the evolution of this new science," he wrote. "Very little research cloning experimentation has been done with animals—a prerequisite to any demands for such work in humans. … As [science] moves forward, we will undoubtedly be forced to reexamine this issue."

The ground Frist yielded to pro-lifers on cloning was dwarfed by the ground they yielded to him on stem cells. The most amazing thing about Bush's decision to approve limited federal funding of stem-cell research was the endorsement he got from the National Right to Life Committee: "The President has acted to save the lives that he could. We further commend President Bush's strong opposition to all human cloning."

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