Magazine article The American Prospect

Daschle and Destiny: Does the Majority Leader Dare Disturb the Universe? (below the Beltway)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Daschle and Destiny: Does the Majority Leader Dare Disturb the Universe? (below the Beltway)

Article excerpt

IN LATE DECEMBER, AS REPUBLICANS and Democrats clashed by night over rival economic-stimulus plans, the nation's newspapers began to take note of a top-down GOP campaign to "demonize" Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. "Republicans leave little doubt about their strategy, or its antecedents," wrote Todd Purdum in The New York Times. The game plan, Purdum explained, is to define Daschle as the chief thwarter of the president's high-minded goals for the nation--a "partisan" (as the New York Post and Wall Street Journal put it), an "obstructionist" (as Dick Cheney did), and George W. Bush's very own Newt Gingrich problem.

As evidence, the Times cited a now notorious memo by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who called on loyalists to equate the phrase "Daschle Democrats" with "obstructionist" whenever possible. But there have been hints of an anti-Daschle cabal in the conservative Washington Times since as far back as June, shortly after Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party (a move that served as Daschle's coronation). Indeed, far more intriguing than the mere existence of a concerted attack plan against Daschle--after all, how could there not be one?--is how that plan has evolved and changed.

When Daschle rose to the fore, the right, or at least its hard-core partisans, initially drew upon techniques they had honed battling Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Rush Limbaugh came up with the moniker "Puff Daschle" as a sequel to "Slick Willy" and sent out a newsletter whose cover graphic depicted Daschle as the King Kong of big government. (The foreground envisaged Rush in a propeller plane, preparing to strafe the Democratic behemoth.) Limbaugh also dubbed Daschle "el Diablo"--demonization at its most literal. Meanwhile, almost as though wandering once again through the mists of primordial Arkansas, the online hordes of and mucked around in Daschle's past, investigating whether his transportation-lobbyist wife Linda had exerted undue influence (the Hillary strategy) and whether the senator had granted special favors to campaign donors (the Buddhist-temple reflex).

Even as the Enron scandal broke open on January 10, Limbaugh admonished listeners that the true shadiness lay in the way Linda Daschle's clients, American and Northwest Airlines, had benefited from the post-September 11 airline bailout. We'll hear more of this if Daschle runs for president; but for now, more mainstream conservatives have realized that he's "squeaky clean," as one close observer puts it. As a result, they have swapped scandal mongering for a form of political allegory, equating Daschle with George Mitchell, the "partisan" Senate Democratic leader who repeatedly frustrated (read "obstructed") George Herbert Walker Bush.

Oddly, this strategy leads conservatives to lavish praise on Daschle's political skills, deliberately building him up as a titanic opponent for the younger Bush. According to The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, Daschle is "as smooth, clever, and likable an operator as Washington has seen in years." Similar encomiums pour forth from other commentators who compare the Senate majority leader with Mitchell. The Republicans who once questioned Daschle's ethics now object that he just might do his job too well. Indeed, a recent "Action Alert" released by Jack Oliver, the Republican National Committee's deputy chairman, accuses Daschle of "abusing his position" by unleashing his formidable political talents.

PARTISAN AND OBSTRUCTIONIST, devious and slick: Daschle, detractors conclude, is the kind of politician who will stop at nothing, even if it means subverting the democratic process. For this claim, the memo to read is not Luntz's but one penned by outgoing Senate majority leader Trent Lott last May. In it, Lott claimed that Daschle's "effective control of the Senate lacks the moral authority of a mandate" because the Jeffords defection was a "`coup of one' that subverted the will of the American voters who elected a Republican majority. …

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