Daschled hopes

Jon Lauck is an attorney and historian on the faculty of South Dakota State University. He is also a maven of South Dakota politics with a gimlet eye for the life and times of Tom Daschle. Professor Lauck is the perfect reviewer for Daschle’s new book, Like No Other: The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever, recounting Dashcle’s two-year stint as Majority Leader of the Senate. The review runs in the new issue of the Weekly Standard, but the Standard has unfortunately not made it available to nonsubscribers. Professor Lauck kindly e-mailed us a copy of his review.
Books by active politicians with future ambitions are notoriously worthless. The lone exception that comes immediately to mind is John McCain’s Faith Of My Fathers, a book that could stand on its own without McCain’s political prominence. Professor Lauck has brought the skills of a close reader to his review of Daschle’s book and, while he makes it clear that this book is no exception to the general rule, he has derived something of value from the book. Here is his review:
“In South Dakota, Tom Daschle is known for wooing the opposition. And, the truth is, he has to woo–since South Dakota Republicans have a ten-point registration advantage over Democrats. In 1992, he even called to woo me, a lowly college junior at the time, and we visited for over forty minutes. The subject was a column I had written for the college newspaper asking why he voted with northeastern liberals such as George Mitchell. It was the early stages of Daschle’s rise to power under Mitchell’s tutelage, and he was clearly nervous about the friction between serving under Mitchell and representing a very non-Mitchell sort of state.
“In his new memoir, ‘Like No Other Time,’ Daschle concedes that the ‘majority of South Dakotans are conservatives.’ But the contradictions between Daschle’s leadership obligations and his state’s conservative leanings have so far not hobbled his Senate campaigns. Since he began his ascent under Mitchell, Daschle’s opponents have been unknown and unfunded. The 2004 race could be an ordeal, however, as Daschle’s ability to woo his way around the contradictions may finally collapse.
“Daschle’s book reviews various political moments of the last three years: the 2000 election, the evenly divided Senate, Senator Jeffords’s abandonment of the Republicans, Daschle’s reign as Senate majority leader, the attacks of September 11, and the 2002 midterm elections. The book is Daschle’s gloss on events, of course, and it’s basically campaign literature. Its chronology could have included the Senate impeachment trial of 1999, for example, but that would be politically foolish (saving Clinton’s bacon was not high on the list of priorities for South Dakota voters). Instead, Daschle begins with a partisan jab: The 2000 presidential election was ‘ended not by voters, but by judges,’ as Gore was ‘cheated in Florida.’
“With an eye to his 2004 Senate bid in a state where 60 percent of voters supported President Bush in 2000 (and haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in forty years), Daschle wants to be seen as something of a friend of Bush. He presses the absurd argument that he does not obstruct the president’s agenda–indeed, the ‘entire concept of “obstructionism” simply makes no sense.’ For Daschle, such criticism is an attempt to ‘silence the voices of opposition in a democratic society’ and to ‘invite something in the way of autocracy.’ It was Republican senators who ‘turned the filibuster into an art form in the 1990s’ and unfairly used it after the Jeffords switch.
“He particularly blames Bush for the tone of Washington politics. Daschle says he wanted more Eisenhower-esque ‘leadership breakfasts’ with the president to foster bipartisanship. While bemoaning the ‘polarization and partisanship’ in Washington, Daschle labels a Bush judicial nominee an ‘apologist for racist cross burners.’ He also notes how President Bush and his advisers were ‘cutting their losses on politically popular issues.’ Daschle knows of what he speaks, having recently voted for a ban on lawsuits against the gun industry and a ban on partial-birth abortions.
“The assumption that voters won’t notice such hypocrisy is a sign that Daschle believes contradictions can be papered over with political maneuvering and spin. Contrasting Daschle to George McGovern underscores how much American liberalism has shriveled in a half-century. McGovern succeeded in South Dakota politics after World War II as an articulate war hero/professor, a political risk-taker with a grand vision. McGovern left his safe academic post to organize the state’s Democratic party–at a time when Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state legislature 108 to 2. When he became a senator, he drew upon the intellectual traditions of Progressivism and the Social Gospel to shape his views. Daschle, on the other hand, hires Clinton operatives to conduct focus groups and take polls. McGovern’s soft-spoken approach was moving, his voice that of a Methodist minister’s son and a deliberative scholar, one who respected the importance of rationality in democratic discourse. Daschle tries to imitate the McGovern style, but he just sounds mousy.
“The trajectory of their careers is also instructive. McGovern began as part of the grand Rooseveltian coalition that sought to complete the unfinished work of the New Deal, an unapologetic advocate of using government to reconstruct whole sectors of American life, and he was willing to alienate the party establishment and rebel against Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He built a mass movement of outsiders (by literally rewriting the rules) and captured the Democratic presidential nomination. Daschle, on the other hand, niggles with details. He’s concerned with whether the nation should ‘retroactively repeal the alternative minimum tax for large corporations.’ In his book he describes his monumental decision as majority leader to change the name of the “Democratic Steering Committee” to the ‘Democratic Steering and Coordination Committee.’
“In contrast to the myriad of programs and policies cranked out during the New Deal and Great Society, a reader searches in vain for one original idea in Daschle. Instead of advancing a broad vision, Daschle does errands for the Democratic party’s interest groups: Tort reforms are killed for the trial lawyers, judicial appointees are filibustered for the pro-choice lobby, school choice is undermined for teachers’ unions, and major bills on aviation and homeland security are delayed for public-employee unions. Daschle’s position on Iraq, for another example, is embarrassing when contrasted with McGovern’s on Vietnam.
“Although carefully scripted, some revealing comments in Daschle’s book slip by the screeners, probably because they are such fixed constellations in the Democratic universe that nobody noticed. Daschle, for example, was critical of President Bush’s ‘axis of evil speech in the wake of the terrorist attacks because he is ‘uncomfortable’ with use of the term ‘evil’ and the ‘language of religious conflict.’ When the president said in his speech after the attacks of September 11 that ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,’ Daschle found it ‘worrisome.’ Daschle offers no indication he understands the nature or depth of the Islamo-fascist threat to the nation. He sees the ‘war on terrorism’ in terms of political ‘strategy.’ The most he says, without any explication or deeper imagination or sense of moral horror, is that the rule of the Taliban was ‘harsh.’
“Although Daschle relentlessly prepares for an opponent from the right in 2004, his biggest problem may be a leadership challenge from the left. After being rolled on the Bush tax cuts, Bush’s major education reform bill, the war in Iraq, and now prescription drugs, his caucus must be seething. The anger among rank-and-file Democratic voters is already palpable in the ascendancy of Howard Dean.
“Preventing his caucus from erupting, obstructing the president’s agenda in an election year without it looking like obstruction, and wooing swing-vote Republicans in South Dakota is a long pull for Daschle. His greatest wooing tool, his clout, was blunted when he failed to line up the necessary votes to pass an energy bill with its ethanol provisions (he was out signing copies of his book). His hard times argument may also evaporate. Although Daschle views the Bush economy as ‘failing,’ ‘floundering,’ and ‘plunging,’ his argument will seem silly if the current economic growth rate continues. And Daschle’s campaign may be bogged down by his obligation to brag about the importance of a future President Dean. But if he wants to start wooing, he can call me. Again.”