WASHINGTON — The emergence of Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as the probable incoming Senate majority leader marks another milestone in President Bush's efforts to reshape the face of the Republican Party.
Though the White House insisted it did not engineer Frist's rise, or the fall of his predecessor, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, one of Frist's principal assets in his sudden ascent was the widespread sense among Republicans that the White House preferred him over Lott in the top job.
Frist, whose selection is expected to be finalized Monday, will align the image of Senate Republicans more closely with the White House because his political profile is much closer to Bush than Lott's was.
Like Bush, Frist is conservative on most issues. But while Lott rarely ventured beyond a conventional conservative skepticism toward government, Frist is more in tune with Bush's idea of a reforming conservatism that looks to increase reliance on the private market to achieve social goals, but generally doesn't demonize government.
The change may be most vivid in health care, likely to be a major focus in the coming Congress and the 2004 presidential race. Over the last few years, Frist has been a leader in developing a conservative health-care agenda, which has included proposals to use tax credits to cover the uninsured and a plan to fundamentally restructure Medicare.
With the White House already embracing those ideas, Frist's rise is likely to give that agenda new impetus in the upcoming Congress. As a result, some Republicans think Frist could help the party close the historic Democratic advantage on health-care issues much the way Bush's education initiatives, such as the education reform law of 2001, has narrowed the gap between the parties on that front.
"It can be transformative for the party," insists one prominent GOP lobbyist.
For Democrats, Frist presents a challenge much like House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the mild-mannered insider who eventually succeeded former Rep. Newt Gingrich as speaker, and Bush himself: All present largely conservative policies in a moderate tone much more acceptable to swing voters than the harder-edged voices that dominated the GOP in the immediate aftermath of its 1994 congressional takeover.
"It's not just Frist; there's a whole generation of Republicans coming up ... who are extraordinarily conservative and whose policies are exactly like the scarier Republicans of a few years ago, but put a friendlier face on it," said Jim Jordan, the outgoing executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We have to do a better job of accentuating the differences on policies and relying less on visceral reactions."
With Frist's emergence, many Republicans think the party has completed a generational transition since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994.
The party then was defined primarily by Gingrich, who openly dreamed of undoing programs that stretched back through the Great Society to the New Deal, and his staunchly conservative deputy, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas. In the Senate, the dominant figures were the often-dour Majority Leader Bob Dole, and then Lott and his deputy, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who is more conservative than Lott.
Now, the dominant voice in the GOP, of course, is Bush, whose determination to send a message of inclusion led to his strong denunciation of Lott. Bush gets support from Hastert, an avuncular figure, and Frist, a physician who has invested time and energy in health-care issues, such as AIDS and the uninsured, traditionally considered higher priorities for Democrats.
Overall the GOP is considerably more conservative than a generation ago, a process measured in the distance between this President Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush. That tilt is also reflected in the leadership role of staunch conservatives such as Nickles in the Senate and incoming House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
But relative to the initial Republican thrust after 1994, the new team at the top constitutes a mid-course correction aimed squarely at the suburban swing voters who drifted away from the GOP and toward President Clinton during the two parties' epic struggles over the role of government in the mid-1990s.
Lott's replacement with Frist represents an even more profound generational change in Southern politics. Eleven years older than Frist -- and shaped by a Deep South state where racial animosities were more intense than in Frist's Tennessee -- Lott had roots in the racially divisive politics that helped Republicans make their first Southern inroads after the Civil Rights Act ended segregation in 1964.
Lott's first job in politics was working for a segregationist Democratic congressman; Frist was 12 years old when segregation was struck down.