JOHNSON CITY — When asked how he would assess the U.S. Senate’s job performance since he left earlier this year, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist smiled and delivered a response that caused reporters to laugh.
“Terrible. Without Frist’s leadership ... terrible,” the Tennessee Republican joked during a media availability before delivering the 25th annual Lamb Lecture at East Tennessee State University on Thursday.
When Democrats retook Congress after the November 2006 election, a Pew Research Center survey found Americans were optimistic that Democrats would actually get their proposals enacted. This was on par with the confidence that Americans voiced about GOP legislative prospects in December 1994 — the year Frist was elected to the Senate.
Now, Frist noted, Democrats are going through low job approval ratings previously experienced by Republicans.
“The respect in the United States Senate ... when I left was just about as low as it’s ever been in history,” he said. “I thought it couldn’t go any lower. Over the last nine months it has gone 20 percent lower. It’s not really a reflection, though, of my leadership when I was there or the Democrats’ leadership today because it’s easy for us in a partisan way to throw it back and forth. But it is a loss of confidence by the American people in the ability ... of Washington to govern, and the fact there has been no major legislation passed in the last two or three years shows the gridlock, shows the excessive partisanship, and we’ve got to break through that.
“I don’t think much is going to change until the (2008) presidential elections. After that, hopefully people will get together ... and keep the fighting going on back and forth but do it in a civil way. ... The environment there is just tough.”
Frist said he’s backing former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee in the presidential race. Frist decided against running for president but is considering a 2010 run for governor in Tennessee. He currently serves as a full-time visiting professor of international economic policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
“(Democratic U.S. Sen.) Hillary Clinton will win the Democrat side for sure in my mind, if you look how well-organized and how well-financed she is,” Frist said. “On our side it is literally wide open. I don’t think (former New York City Mayor Rudy) Giuliani is going to be the (GOP presidential nominee) at the end of the day. His values are just a little off where the base of the Republican Party is.
“The Washington media says (Thompson) doesn’t want it enough, he’s not aggressive enough, he doesn’t show up for press conferences, he’s not running around. But if you look where the American people are (in the polls), he’s doing very, very well.”
Frist declared that access to health care — including health care for the uninsured — should dominate debate in the 2008 presidential race.
“We can’t be the most powerful in the world, the richest nation in the world, the highest GDP (gross domestic product) in the world and put 47 million (uninsured) people aside and say that’s just not as important,” he said. “The Republicans have not done a very good job articulating a (health care) plan, a specific plan to address those two issues. ... In the primary focus, health care has not been a big agenda item for Republicans. It was for me as majority leader.”