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Weekly Analysis: David Brooks and Clarence Page

December 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Now, our weekly analysis from Brooks and Page. That’s David Brooks of The Weekly Standard and Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune. Mark Shields is off tonight. Welcome to you both.

David, we had a rather remarkable political event this Monday. Tennessee Senator Bill Frist was elected Senate Majority Leader in a conference call. He then came out and gave what amounted to a sort of speech to the press, took no questions. How did he do in his debut?

DAVID BROOKS: He did quite well. First of all, I object to the conference call. Why not just-I message each other. I’m conservative in these things. Get together. But he introduced himself quite well.

One of the things he did, he talked about being a surgeon. It is clear the way he talks about being a surgeon is the way some people talk about their military service, it’s a perspective which they put on everything that comes after in their lives.

The second thing I noticed was his humility. He said I’m here to serve and not be served. And this sort of is the essence of Bill Frist. I brought along his resume, which is 12 pages, Harvard, Princeton, all the awards, all the books, all the journal articles. You get to Page 10 before he mentions he can walk on water. It is an amazing resume. He is an unbelievable guy.

MARGARET WARNER: And he is just 50 years old.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Exactly. But he is a humble guy, and that is why he is not insufferable to everybody around him. And I thought he presented that side of himself very well.

And the final thing was if he mentioned the word “team” anymore, he was trying out for the Dallas Cowboys because he talked about the Republican team, the congressional team, his family as a team. The meaning of that is I’m not going to try to be the dictator of the Senate. I’m going to work with other people. I know I’m relatively new at this.

MARGARET WARNER: There were no hard edges, were there, Clarence?

CLARENCE PAGE: None. It was a perfect presentation, a wonderful debut. You know, Democrats are looking upon this warily because Bill Frist is well known.

There are two Bill Frists; there is nice Bill Frist and not so nice even naughty Bill Frist. What is so nice first of all is he is the model of compassionate conservatism. He is – you might say — the poster man for what George W. Bush has been trying to say all along. He is a doctor and Republicans love to call him Dr. Frist and point out he is the only doctor in the Senate. He gives countless hours of volunteer work in Africa. He has worked tirelessly to help bring health care to poor people — wonderfully compassionate.

At the same time when he ran against Jim Sasser and beat him by 14 points in Tennessee, he ran a campaign that had what Democrats would call racial code words in it. He, for example, said, you know, I’ve been working to help you in Tennessee, more or less or help people with surgery. He has been working to help Marion Barry–.

MARGARET WARNER: Send money to Marion Barry in Washington.

CLARENCE PAGE: Yeah, It’s not an exact quote but close to it. Jim Sasser was on the D.C. committee, at the time Marion Barry was very like Sasser. Well, that’s all it took to go and link him. You know, Marion Barry is not the kind of guy who Democrats like to put forward as a model of their party.

Is that racial coding? Well some people say it is, some say it isn’t; nevertheless, he is not a totally nice guy. He wouldn’t have gotten where he is if he didn’t know how to play some hard ball. He is an effective politician. He was head of the Republican Senate campaign committee that led to the Republicans taking back the Senate majority. So Democrats have a job on their hands. He is kind of Trent Lott with a happy face.

MARGARET WARNER: David, yet he pledged in the speech, one of the things he pledged to do or urged his Republican colleagues to heal those wounds of division that have been reopened so prominently by the racially charged controversy that brought down Trent Lott. Is he the man to lead Republicans to do that? And what is it actually going to take from a Republican-led Senate to do that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the first thing, it’s a matter of temperament. Bill Frist was 12 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, which is different, a different lifetime experience.

There is sort of an exodus story for conservatives. The early ones who really came pre-Goldwater really had to be the ice breakers and they were sort of the tough people when being a conservative was kind of weird. Anybody who came after that, life was relatively easy and temperamentally much softer personalities, and Bill Frist is that soft personality.

As to what he needs to do, well that’s going to be actually kind of tough because upcoming this term is going to be a major affirmative action case and Republicans are going to be called upon to comment on it. It’s a University of Michigan case, and a classic affirmative action case where Hispanics and African Americans are given I think 20 points on their admission score whether they get into the school. That is a classic affirmative action case. And Republicans are going to be called upon to take a stand on that.

MARGARET WARNER: You think even though it is a Supreme Court case, that not only the White House, which of course will have to take a position but even the Senate will?

DAVID BROOKS: I think just as a matter of public record because of the Trent Lott controversy, this will become more of a political issue than it would have been.

One of the reasons, frankly, Trent Lott was replaced is because people thought he would cave on these sorts of issues. So they want Frist to unite, but they want him to stick with the principled Republican stance that says equal opportunity, not affirmative action not quotas. So he does face an incredibly tough balance there.

CLARENCE PAGE: Democrats, depending on whether they get their groove back or not are going to be pushing hard on issues like a new proposed hate crime bill, toughen penalties for hate crimes which conservatives do not like. It is an infringement on freedom of speech. I have trouble with hate crime laws myself. They have passed Supreme Court muster and it is a great hot button issue for Democrats to push Frist and other Republicans to the wall.

How strongly do you really feel about enforcing discrimination laws against women and minorities — there are bills concerning-there’s a proposal for more tax cuts for the poor, which you might say is a racial surrogate issue as is education. Health care, we haven’t gotten to that yet. The man is a doctor from an HMO family. He helped to carve out Bush’s stem cell research position, very controversial. Bush is going to push for health care to take that issue away from Democrats. I see some very strong arguments going on here. He is going to be on the hot seat and for very good reasons for some very important issues.

MARGARET WARNER: The other thing, David, is this job of being Majority Leader is as much about being a good tactician, knowing the Senate rules, knowing how to play the parliamentary game as it is of having a grand vision. He is up against Tom Daschle. He has no experience, Frist does not, has no experience. Do you think he is equipped for that part of the job?

DAVID BROOKS: The way I see it is the guy took people’s lungs and hearts and put it in other people’s bodies. If he can do that, he can probably learn this. He is someone who has mastered these sorts of things. He does it in his own way.

Clarence mentioned the campaigning style he brought to the job. He was before this the head of the Senate Campaign Committee, which is a job that was previously held by people like Phil Gramm and Alfonse D’Amato, tough guys, real tough guys, not like him at all, and people thought temperamentally he is the worst sort of person to do this sort of job because he is not known as a tough guy and yet he had one of the biggest Republican triumphs. So someone –

MARGARET WARNER: As Clarence said, wasn’t afraid to play tough guy or have the committee to play tough guy.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I mentioned his resume; he is superman. Maybe he can do it.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think the Democrats that Tom Daschle should regard this change? Is it an opportunity to exploit or is Bill Frist really a more formidable character than Trent Lott because of his closeness to the White House and because of this perhaps more appealing image you’ve both talked about.

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, to quote a well known Republican, don’t misunderestimate him. Bill Frist is a George W. Bush kind of hard ball Republican, he has got the soft edges, but he does know how to go in the trenches. He also knows how to deal whether it’s Teddy Kennedy on a health care bill or whether it’s the right-wing of his own party, in trying to fight for what is a moderate position on abortion and gun control, but is anathema to his own party’s right-wing.

He is also in a pinch because he is identified now with the Bush administration; he is close to George W. Bush, he is his kind of Republican. He is also a Howard Baker type of Republican. He is statesman-like. He can lead the party in that kind of constructive direction.

Tom Daschle has got his work cut out for him but Tom Daschle was too slow to get off the dime and jumping on Trent Lott as far as a lot of Democrats are concerned. They’re wondering if he is too soft for the job. If I were Tom Daschle, of course I come from Chicago where we always play hard ball–.

MARGARET WARNER: Where we know what tough is.

CLARENCE PAGE: But if I was Tom Daschle, I would say we’re Democrats, going to draw some bright lines now. You’re a man of moderation. We can deal with you but let’s talk about how we really carve out something that’s of interest to people who are in the Democratic Party base.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re both quite partisan but they’re probably the two nicest people in the Senate.

CLARENCE PAGE: It’s not Chicago city hall anymore.

DAVID BROOKS: A steel claw on a velvet glove for both of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, briefly, before we go another Democratic Senator, Bob Graham of Florida said this week he was thinking of running for president. And he’s another Senator with foreign policy or in his case, particularly intelligence credentials. Do you see a theme emerging here?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s the lesson of 2002, the election. That’s the top issue. The 2004 election is going to be defined by Iraq, North Korea, and homeland security. Those are the three issues, and you need to have somebody who can stand out on those.

Bob Graham has been on the Intelligence Committee, has articulated positions on Hezbollah, knows how to spell Hezbollah which is more than most Senators do. And so he is prominent. His problem will be, as it was when he was talked about as vice presidential pick, personality – little quirks. He keeps a diary, when he woke up, what he had to eat, who he met, everything. He has got 2500 diaries in his home and for some reason–.

CLARENCE PAGE: Dangerous in Washington.

DAVID BROOKS: People don’t like anal retentives for some reason. They’re prejudiced against them. So in a crowded Democratic field that actually will be a little bit of a problem explaining his personality which is unique.

MARGARET WARNER: Clarence, he did, in some of his opening remarks or when he made the announcement, also criticized the president for his handling of the war on terror, particularly as he said the al-Qaida threat here in the United States. That seems to be an emerging theme from other would-be or wannabe candidates, too.

CLARENCE PAGE: Yes, and Bob Graham is hard to demonize. First of all, he is a popular politician, a Democrat who survived shifts to the Republican wing and back to the 50-50 Florida that we know. He is a former governor. He was on the Senate select committee on intelligence. This is not first time he has criticized the president in his handling of the al-Qaida versus — you say al-Qaida versus Saddam Hussein.

He points out, I think correctly that you can topple Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida is still a threat. He hasn’t really drawn that link. And the White House hasn’t drawn the link I mean. And Graham is going right at that issue. He is hard to demonize because he knows what he is talking about. And will he be able to go the distance without appearing to be attacking a president in a way that’s viewed as unpatriotic? That’s what Republicans are going to play on.

MARGARET WARNER: For Senator John Edwards also gave a very tough speech criticizing the president’s record on protecting the homeland. I mean, compared to the 2002 elections, David, where every Democrat wanted to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the president on the war on terror, this is quite different.

DAVID BROOKS: This is the big issue, how does the U.S. behave in the world? That is a huge issue. I’m a little dubious that this homeland security issue is going to work because you don’t want to be seen as attacking the president. You want to be helpful, so you establish some credibility but you can’t attack the president on this.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Thank you both.