t’s his first day back in the now-anthrax-free Hart Senate Office Building, and Tom Daschle’s disposition is bordering on buoyant. This might seem odd to those who don’t know him, given the past few months of his life: A month after September 11th, his office received a letter addressed to him laden with anthrax. Then, right-wing groups around the country began skewering him in radio, TV and newspaper ads for “obstructing” the president’s domestic agenda, a ferocious campaign that continues to this day. In January, after touring war-torn Afghanistan, he returned to the free-fire zone of Washington politics – where the Bush administration is encouraging unrestricted political warfare on the Democratic majority leader.
On January 16th, about the time he was meeting with Afghanistan’s interim leader Hamid Karzai (“A really impressive guy,” Daschle enthuses), a prominent group of conservative activists – part of the same group who brought us Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” – launched dumpdaschle.org. Among its goals: Start raising money online in the service of defeating Daschle in his next Senate election, which is more than two years away.
His opponents may have trouble blackening his reputation, however: Daschle’s well-scrubbed appearance seems to accurately reflect the rest of his life. While some eyebrows have been raised about his wife Linda’s lobbying activity for the airline industry, even Gary Ruskin – the zealous, nonpartisan investigator who runs Ralph Nader’s Congressional Accountability Project – is hard-pressed to come up with any instances of ethical lapse on Daschle’s part.
Ironically, Daschle has proved himself more than willing to accommodate the White House. For example, some Democrats were stunned in October when he squelched debate over troubling threats to civil liberties contained in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s anti-terrorism bill. “That was a low point in his leadership,” says Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The result was a new law that gives federal investigators sweeping new powers to spy on Americans.
But when it comes to economic and environmental issues, Daschle has vigorously opposed the Bush administration, and that’s why the White House has him in its cross hairs. Some of the president’s partisans seem to believe Daschle’s dissent is almost tantamount to treason in a time of war.
In October, when Republicans announced an economic-stimulus package that would have repealed the alternative-minimum tax on corporations and refunded them $25 billion, Daschle stopped the bill from going through. He explains, “I don’t know why helping the top one percent of the corporations in the country by repealing the tax and making it retroactive works in the name of economic stimulus.”
Daschle then did exactly what he promised he would do: On January 23rd, he offered a new bill that included only the provisions that were common ground for both sides. Both the White House and Senate Republicans immediately said it was not enough, House Republicans opened fire on it, and he was forced to shelve it. “And they accuse me of being an obstructionist,” Daschle observes.
After September 11th, Daschle swiftly moved a war resolution to the floor and expedited the passage of the airline-industry bailout and the education bill. Bush was very appreciative; after addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20th, the president nearly enveloped the diminutive Daschle in a Texas-size bear hug. But when it became clear that Daschle did not believe the war required deference to the White House on matters having nothing to do with terrorism, out came the knives.
Beginning in October, ads swiped at Daschle for supporting the humanitarian oil-for-food program with Iraq and for opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Right-wing groups such as the Tax Relief Coalition, a mix of corporations and trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the tobacco industry, have been attacking him on the airwaves ever since. Meanwhile, by Thanksgiving, according to a report in the Washington Times, the conservative D.C. paper, Bush couldn’t stomach Daschle’s intransigence any longer and ordered political aide-de-camp Karl Rove to start coordinating White House and congressional attacks on Daschle. In early December, Republican pollster Frank Luntz produced a widely circulated memo that shredded the post-9/11 bipartisan truce. “Remember what the Democrats did to Gingrich?” Luntz asked, referring to the notoriously arrogant, disgraced former Speaker of the House. “We need to do exactly the same thing to Daschle. . . . It’s time for congressional Republicans to personalize the individual that is standing directly in the way of economic security, energy security and even national security.”
The new year brought two new anti-Daschle television campaigns, one reportedly costing $500,000. Though the sponsoring groups are ostensibly separate from the White House, more than a few in Washington wonder if Rove isn’t quietly spurring on the new efforts.
Daschle’s enemies assume that he is weak in his home state. South Dakota is “where he’s most vulnerable – his soft underbelly,” says veteran GOP strategist Grover Norquist. But Norquist may be wrong: Although South Dakota went sixty-forty for Bush in 2000, Daschle had been re-elected in 1998 with sixty-two percent of the vote. Daschle has quickly responded to the attacks with ads of his own. “It’s very unusual to be on the receiving end of this much negative effort outside a campaign,” he says. “But the polling data suggests it’s not really having any impact – which isn’t surprising, because it hasn’t been done very artfully.” In fact, Daschle has worked incredibly hard for the loyalty of South Dakota voters.
A bookkeeper’s son from the town of Aberdeen, the Catholic Daschle was inspired toward public service by John F. Kennedy’s presidency. Like so many who opposed the Vietnam War but felt obliged to serve, Daschle joined the Air Force ROTC, and after graduation he spent three years stateside as a Strategic Air Command intelligence officer. (He was the first in his family to finish college.) After several years in D.C. as a senator’s aide, Daschle returned home in 1978 to mount his campaign for one of South Dakota’s then-two House seats – an election he was likely to lose. But that campaign highlighted his talent for personal outreach and stoic endurance. Knocking on approximately 50,000 doors, he endured a variety of ignominies.
“One time I went up to a woman’s house – it was winter, and I had a coat bundled up all around my face – and I said, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Daschle.’ And she says, ‘I have a check for you.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is the way it’s supposed to be!’ So I stomped around outside, and she came back to the door and gave me an envelope, and as I walked away I looked at it – it said ‘Argus Leader‘ on it. I had to go back and give up the check. She said, ‘But you’re the paper boy, aren’t you?'”
In the end, he squeaked by with 139 votes. Once in Washington, he began to distinguish himself on the national stage as a player on agriculture issues and as an advocate for Vietnam veterans whose health was damaged by Agent Orange. (Though it took ten years, he successfully fought to get the vets government compensation.)
But mindful of the example of fellow South Dakota liberal Democrat George McGovern – a politician whose constituents at least tolerated his liberalism but never forgave his perceived neglect of the state during his presidential bid – Daschle, then as today, made sure he was a constant personal presence in his district even when he was in Washington. “One day, either late 1985 or early 1986, I went to the House dining room to meet Daschle for lunch,” recalls David Kranz, a veteran Argus Leader political reporter. “He’s got this stack of cards and a list – he’s not only hand-writing personal thank-you notes but also notes that were just ‘good to see you.’ And he still does that. There are thousands of those cards floating around South Dakota. People proudly display them in their business places.”
That personal touch – along with ensuring that South Dakota’s farmers are well-supported by the federal government – is the key to his success. Says Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), “He’s learned to do for his home state, and in doing so, they forgive him the liberal national politics he demonstrates.”
Daschle has never had the opportunity to lead a big, unified Democratic majority. He spent his first term in the Senate, which he entered in 1987, listening and learning, and quietly emerged as a leader of his peers. At the end of 1994, he competed for the minority-leader post with the more senior and higher-profile senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, after Democrats lost the majority in the ’94 election. Just as he had in 1978, Daschle reached out and campaigned hard; he ended up winning by one vote.
Since adopting the majority leader’s post last year, Daschle has deftly managed the extremes of his party, often through nuanced handling of more conservative members such as Zell Miller of Georgia. But still they don’t hesitate to chastise him: After Daschle made a fiery speech in January alleging that Bush’s tax cut last year contributed to the recession, Miller – a big tax-cut supporter who is up for re-election this year – said publicly that Daschle’s opinion “made neither political nor economic sense.” Daschle concedes, “If I have a sizable percentage of caucus members who are uncomfortable with the question of revisiting the tax cut, it’s going to be hard for me as leader to take a position to the contrary.”
Despite Daschle’s success in keeping the ten to fifteen very conservative Democrats in the party, Republicans are eager to exploit fissures on such issues as tax cuts and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “The one thing Rove is attempting to do, with some success, is to divide the Democratic coalition,” says former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Daschle’s biggest test, of course, will be the November election, in which thirty-four seats will be in play. If Democrats gain seats, he will have more leverage against a popular president who values tax cuts over social needs and environmental protection.
“As I have said to many who don’t know him, who have heard the soft voice and seen the warm smile,” says Craig (hastening to add that the smile “is very real, and I don’t mean to criticize it”), “behind that smile is a driven, hard-nosed liberal Democratic politician – and don’t ever forget it.”