End of the Road for Frist; What Next for Hastert?

Longshot bid for Republican presidential nomination ends before it begins.

Longshot bid for Republican presidential nomination ends before it begins. hide caption

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Joe Martin

The last person to stay on in the House after losing the Speakership was Joe Martin of Massachusetts -- a half century ago. hide caption

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The Veep sought the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination.

The Veep sought the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination. Despite the design on the button, lightning did not strike. hide caption

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Feinstein-Boxer button

Usually, when a state holds two simultaneous Senate races, the same party wins both. hide caption

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George Mitchell

Eighteen years ago today, Senate Democrats elect George Mitchell of Maine to be majority leader. hide caption

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With George W. Bush constitutionally ineligible to seek another term, and Vice President Dick Cheney passing on a White House run, the 2008 presidential nominations for both parties seem to be wide open. And yet, interestingly enough, more and more prospective candidates are bowing out of contention well before primary and caucus voters can have their say. On the Democratic side, two names widely bandied about — former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin — have said no to a bid for the presidency in 2008. For the Republicans, the election results in Virginia earlier this month removed Sen. George Allen from consideration. Now, scratch one more GOP name off the list: Bill Frist.

The outgoing majority leader didn't seek another Senate term this year, presumably so he could plot out a course that would lead him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The odds of him becoming president, or even his party's nominee, were never very good to begin with. Frist came to the leadership four years ago thanks to missteps made by Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), whose fond recollections of Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential candidacy provoked a wide outcry and ultimately cost Lott his post. Lott's ouster was engineered by the White House, who chose Frist as its candidate for majority leader. And for four years, Frist has never been able to escape the charge, fair or not, that when he wasn't doing the White House's bidding, he was busy pandering to the party's right-wing base (see Schiavo, Terri).

And then, in the few times when he broke from the White House — for instance, when he came out in support of stem-cell research — conservatives were publicly outraged.

Ideology aside, Frist has not had an especially successful tenure as majority leader. Granted, it's not easy trying to run the Senate and run for president at the same time, as Bob Dole and Howard Baker (and before that, Lyndon Johnson) learned. But Frist never pretended to be a student of government. He was in the medical profession, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, when he decided to run for office in a most favorable Republican year, 1994. And he became a giant killer of sorts when he knocked off Sen. Jim Sasser (D), who was preparing a bid to become Senate majority leader and never realized Frist's threat until it was too late.

So no presidential run for Frist. That's probably not a big surprise, given his record of the past four years, and the fact that the voters turned thumbs down on Republican rule in the Senate (though the party did hold onto his Tennessee seat). He will, as he said this week, instead "return to my professional roots as a healer" and "refocus my creative energies on innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges Americans face." Had he decided to make a run for the presidency, the guess here is that it would have been more than a seemingly insurmountable challenge for Frist.

We'll save chatter about John McCain and Mitt Romney and company for another day. But with George Allen and now Bill Frist gone from the field, there is no major Republican left standing from the GOP's best region, the South. (An opportunity for outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee? We'll see.)

OK, on to the House of Representatives, where nobody — save Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California — is planning on running for president.

The buzz on Capitol Hill these past couple of weeks has been, understandably, about the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi is just five weeks from becoming the first female speaker in history. Steny Hoyer of Maryland beat back a determined effort by Pennsylvania's John Murtha to become the next majority leader.

There were other subplots as well, such as whether Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) — the chairman of the Democratic campaign committee for the House, who got lots of credit for the Dems winning a majority of seats — was going to challenge Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) for the post of majority whip (he didn't); and whether Jane Harman (CA) or Alcee Hastings (FL) will become the next Intelligence Committee chair (they won't).

There was some interesting House Republican news as well. Ohio's John Boehner stays on as leader and Missouri's Roy Blunt as whip; both defeated challenges from upstart conservatives quite handily.

And then there's the lingering question about Dennis Hastert. The longest-serving Republican House Speaker in history, Hastert suffered back-to-back blows, first when he offered a less than cogent response to what the leadership knew about Mark Foley's (R-FL) predilection for teenage congressional pages, and then on Election Day, when the GOP lost some 29 seats (and the majority as well). Hastert quickly said that he would not be a candidate for a leadership post — in this case, minority leader — but insisted he would stay in the House.

Not everyone is sure about that. He remains a popular figure inside the Republican Conference, but to say that he was a less-than-inspiring leader during the past several months is putting it mildly. Part of it is not his fault; the political capital President Bush talked about two short years ago is long gone, as various scandals and the war in Iraq have taken the wind out of whatever remaining sails the GOP had. It's hard to imagine anything anyone could have done — short of dumping Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in advance of the election — that could have kept Republicans in charge of at least one chamber.

Things started to turn for the worse around the time Tom DeLay left the House under an ethical cloud. In the view of some, DeLay's exit exposed Hastert as little more than the man behind the curtain in the Land of Oz. Infighting, factionalism and election worries didn't help, either, but the speaker had no solution. Hastert's allies say that is unfair, that it was Hastert's reputation and demeanor that rescued House Republicans following the fall of Newt Gingrich after the disappointing 1998 midterms.

Whatever, rumors continue that despite his denials, Hastert is planning an '07 exit from the House. But if he stays, he would be the first former speaker of the House to do so after being relegated to the minority since 1955.

Here's a look back at the House speakers since World War II and what ended their tenure as speaker and, if applicable, as a member of Congress:

Dennis Hastert (R-IL) — Speaker 1999-2006

Ended Speakership – GOP lost majority in 2006 midterm elections.

Newt Gingrich (R-GA) – Speaker 1995-1998

Ended Speakership – Following an intra-party mutiny after the GOP's disappointing showing in the 1998 midterms, and an announced challenge from Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA), Gingrich said he would not stand for another term.

Ended House tenure – Within days of the above, he resigned his House seat effective 1/3/99.

Tom Foley (D-WA) – Speaker 1989-1994

Ended Speakership – Defeated for re-election in 1994.

Jim Wright (D-TX) – Speaker 1987-1989

Ended Speakership – In a dramatic speech on the House floor, he announces on 5/31/89 that he will resign on 6/6/89 rather than continue to fight ethics charges.

Tip O'Neill (D-MA) – Speaker 1977-1986

Ended Speakership – Did not seek re-election in 1986.

Carl Albert (D-OK) – Speaker 1971-1976

Ended Speakership – Did not seek re-election in 1976.

John McCormack (D-MA) – Speaker 1962-1970

Ended Speakership – Did not seek re-election in 1970.

Sam Rayburn (D-TX) – Speaker 1940-46, 1949-52, 1955-61

Ended Speakership – Democrats lost the majority in 1946, regained it in '48; lost it in '52, regained it in '54. Died in office in 1961.

Joseph Martin (R-MA) – Speaker 1947-48; 1953-54

Ended Speakership – Republicans lost the majority in 1948, regained it in '52, lost it again in '54.

Ended House tenure – Defeated in GOP primary by Margaret Heckler in 1966.

Alben and the Chipmunks. Speaking of trivia, the Rudin vs. Elving feud that broke out into the open during last week's "It's All Politics" podcast shows no sign of abating. At issue: whether the last time a sitting president or vice president did not run for president was 1952 or 1928. Ron Elving, NPR's Senior Washington Editor and my podcast cohort, says it was 1952. Wrong, I say, because Vice President Alben Barkley sought the Democratic nomination in '52 after President Harry Truman announced he would not run. Further, I say, let's look at the record.

Elving showed up at last week's podcast equipped with a list of candidates who ran in the primaries in '52, and pointed out that Barkley never ran. That's not the point, I insisted. One, primaries were not the big deal in '52 that they are now. Two, Adlai Stevenson didn't run in the primaries that year, either — in fact, he wasn't even a candidate when the Democratic convention opened that summer in Chicago. And yet, when the convention concluded, Stevenson was the nominee. Three, just because someone didn't run in the primaries doesn't mean he wasn't a candidate. Vice President Hubert Humphrey didn't run in — or win — a single primary in 1968, and yet he won the Democratic presidential nomination.

The fact is, Barkley, who had said little more than he was "willing," officially declared his candidacy on July 6, 1952. Sen. Edwin Johnson (D-CO), who had been heading up the campaign for Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, called Barkley the candidate to beat for the nomination. Whether or not that was true, the fact remains that Barkley was a candidate — along with Russell, Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver, Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, and Averell Harriman of New York, among others. Sen. Thomas Hennings (D-MO) gave the nominating speech for Barkley at the convention, and House Majority Leader John McCormack (D-MA) gave the seconding speech. That, in my book, makes him a candidate.

Barkley received 78-1/2 delegates for the nomination, which was won by Stevenson on the third ballot — the last time a presidential nomination went beyond the first ballot.

And, for the record, the stunning amount of e-mails that came in on the subject overwhelmingly supported my case. (I received five e-mails.)

Dale Prentiss, an American history professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., says he thoroughly researched the question and agreed that the facts bear me out. However, he ended his note by saying, "Listen, Ken, I'd love to dig deeper into this, but my girlfriend just called to remind me I'm late for dinner at her house." It's amazing the priorities some people have.

Others, including Danny Bishop of Des Moines, Iowa, and Danielle Barbour, a law student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, also researched the issue and came down on my side.

And Julia Moss, who was NPR's elections intern this year, sums up the issue more succinctly: "It doesn't matter if Barkley had a campaign headquarters. The only thing that matters is if he had a button. Button=candidate." Finally, someone who understands what this is really all about.

Oh, did I mention that I received five e-mails? Well, the fifth one was from Stewart Urist; it ended this way: "I truly enjoy the jaundiced view you each have of politics. Your turkey segment [in last week's podcast] was just terrific! I am very pleased that the podcast will be continuing." That's the good news.

Sadly, he began his note this way: "I thought that the discussion you and Ron Elving had about the last time no incumbent president or vice president was running in the next presidential election was just silly. It made me think of the discussions about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, or, more recently, the meaning of 'is.' While it was interesting to learn that it had been some great while since this happened, exactly how long ago is of no interest, at least to this devoted listener."

Warning to Mr. Urist: Do not listen to this week's podcast!

Now, time for some questions:

Q: Sen. Craig Thomas (R-WY), who was just re-elected to a third term, has announced that he has been diagnosed with leukemia. Not to be ghoulish, but this could result in a special election for the seat in 2008, when the term of the other Wyoming senator, Mike Enzi (R), is also up. In previous instances when a state has held simultaneous elections for both of its Senate seats (Kansas 1996, Tennessee 1994, California 1992, Alabama and Minnesota in 1978, etc.), both have gone to the same party. Has there ever been a time when a state held two Senate elections on the same day, and the winners were from opposite parties? — Harvey Hudson, Eden Prairie, Minn.

A: Yes, but not often. The last time was 1966, in South Carolina. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), running for the first time as a Republican, won re-election while Fritz Hollings (D) won the special election for the seat left vacant by the late Olin Johnston (D).

Before that, it happened in 1962, and in two states. In Idaho, Sen. Frank Church (D) was re-elected, while Len Jordan (R) won the special Senate race. And in New Hampshire, Sen. Norris Cotton (R) was returned to office, while Thomas McIntyre (D) won the special.

Q: If Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman reneged on his promise to caucus with the Democrats and became a Republican, what would happen to the Senate's committee assignments? Wouldn't that give the Senate to the GOP? — Charles Markey, Jersey City, N.J.

A: Yes it would. I've been saying from the beginning that Lieberman stays with the Dems, but I am intrigued by the fact that he refuses to completely rule out switching parties. Perhaps he remains wounded by all those terrible things his Democratic colleagues said about him after he was defeated in the primary last August. Of course, if he did switch, he would accomplish exactly what Vermont's Jim Jeffords did in 2001. By leaving the Republican Party to become an independent — and caucus with the Democrats — Jeffords turned control of the Senate over to the Dems. It lasted only until the results of the 2002 midterm elections.

I still say Lieberman stays put.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please please please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: Democrats choose Maine's George Mitchell to be the new Senate majority leader, replacing Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who decided to step down. Mitchell gets 27 votes to 14 each for Hawaii's Daniel Inouye and Louisiana's J. Bennett Johnston (Nov. 29, 1988).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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