Transcript of Daschle Interview

Posted December 7, 2003 at 8:51am

On Monday, Dec. 1, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sat down in his Capitol office for an interview with Roll Call, with topics ranging from his relationships with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and maverick Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) to his own re-election campaign in South Dakota. The following are excerpts from that interview:

ROLL CALL: Where does this session of Congress rank in terms of your years as Democratic leader? You had big losses on Medicare and tax cuts and some other key issues.

TOM DASCHLE: I would say that it is one of the most disappointing sessions since I’ve become leader. When you look at all the things that were left undone, in part, and you look at some of the things that were done that should have been left undone, it creates less than a pretty picture. When you look at the economy and the disastrous circumstances we face in large measure because of the terrible fiscal policy the Bush administration and the Republicans pursued; if you look at the problems we have created in education with lack of funding for the No Child Left Behind Act; the energy bill, the Medicare bill, huge sops to the special interests, I would say that special interests ought to look back on this past year with great satisfaction. I don’t know if they’ve had any better year in recent times than the one they just had. For the rest of America, I think it was a dismal performance and I don’t think there is any other word for it but dismal.

ROLL CALL: You’ve talked before about your relationship with Majority Leader Bill Frist and how different it was with [former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)]. In the last few months has the relationship with Frist evolved at all?

DASCHLE: Well, I have a great deal of admiration for him personally. I think that he is a dedicated leader, that I’m sure he wants to do the best for his country and certainly his caucus and I think it starts with that. He has roles and responsibilities that are commensurate with others who have had that position and I have to respect that. Having said that, I think that whatever decisions the caucus, the Republican caucus has made — that are not entirely Senator Frist’s to make — I think have been wrong. They were wrong in priorities, they were wrong in scheduling, and in large measure they have been wrong in including Democrats in key moments of legislative consideration, in the conferences especially. But in other things as well. So locking out Democrats was a huge mistake. The priorities they chose, this 40-hour debate and all the other things they did on scheduling, were decisions that I took exception to, but, but again, he’s a leader that I have enjoyed working with, as I had with his predecessors. That doesn’t mean you have to agree.

ROLL CALL: How bad is it right now between both parties? Each year that it seems it’s gotten worse.

DASCHLE: That’s a hard answer to give, because I think it’s the worst ever in the House and I don’t think the acrimony has ever been more evident. And there are times when I think it gets very bad here in the Senate, but then at other times I see rays of hope and optimism that things could get better. Just think what we worked through in this last week: bipartisan consensus on the [Federal Aviation Administration] bill, a bipartisan consensus on the Fair Creditor Reporting Act, and those were, we tend to minimize them because they were done by unanimous consent but they were tough issues that we had to work through and we look back, I think, on both sides, with a level of satisfaction and gratitude that we were able to do that. The supplemental for Iraq, we went through that. And I think we enjoyed, obviously, pretty broad support. And then I would cite a little thing but it was indicative of, I think, an interest in commitude. Frist held a barbecue dinner, a very informal dinner, I think it was the night before the last day of the session and I was impressed by the number of Republicans and Democrats who were there together. And it was very cordial. I stayed there for about a half hour and talked to a lot more Republicans than I did Democrats.

ROLL CALL: Were people very upset about the filibuster and bringing in the cots and with memos being stolen from Democratic databases, from the server?

DASCHLE: The question is whether the glass is half full or half empty. There are days when I think it is almost entirely empty and then there are days when I’m a little more optimistic. You cited very good examples of extraordinarily partisan activities that ought to give everyone pause. I think there are fundamental threats to the institution. This institution gets degraded every time something like that happens. Whether it is a two-hour 51 minute vote in the House, or stealing documents from somebody’s computer. I mean, these are extraordinary developments that cannot be ignored or minimized and I think have to be addressed.

ROLL CALL: You feel that Senator Frist has some personal skills that you admire and you respect his work ethic and patriotism for lack of a better word. But do you feel that he sometimes gives in too easily to the more fringe elements of the caucus.

DASCHLE: I can’t comment on how easily he gives in. I will say that he oftentimes is under great caucus pressure that is reflected, I think, oftentimes in his decisions and his comments. That’s a common occurrence in leadership and I feel that from time to time myself. But I do believe – that’s why I said, I think a lot of the decisions, if he made them completely independently and without regard for whatever pressure he was feeling, my sense is that there are occasions when those decisions might have been different, but that’s a decision only he can make and he needs to weigh all those pressures and factors and that’s why when I criticize decisions regarding priorities and scheduling and inclusion — to mention three — I find fault with the caucus and with the entire Republican leadership, not just Senator Frist.

ROLL CALL: You spoke about the House a couple times already, and who do you blame for the partisanship?

DASCHLE: Again, I think, clearly, the Republican leadership, the hierarchy within the Republican caucus and the House, they are the ones that make these decision and they are the ones they ought to be held accountable.

ROLL CALL: Specifically though, would it be Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).?

DASCHLE: All the above.

ROLL CALL: Republicans would turn around and say just a lot of the same things, they did say a lot of the same things — you were the Majority Leader, you had to lean to the left wing of your Caucus, obstruction, obstruction, obstruction. How do you respond to that. Are they wrong?

DASCHLE: Well, I’ve got critics on both sides. If you talk to some of the people in our base, they would tell you that they don’t think I fight enough, that I’m not as nearly aggressive, combative and confrontational as they would like to see me and see Democratic leadership. I’ve come to believe that you can’t really be affected by your critics on either the right or the left. You have to do the best you can and I’m very confident that I can go home and explain my actions and my deportment to the people of my state, and generally I find that they accept those explanations quite readily.

ROLL CALL: At this time last year you were thinking about running for president? Do you regret not throwing your hat into the ring?

DASCHLE: I look back on two decisions I made this last year that were the biggest decisions I’ve made in, at least the time I’ve been in the Senate, if not the entire time I’ve been in public life, which next year will be 25 years. The first of those two decisions was not to run for president and the second was to run for re-election for a fourth term. And both of those decisions I think in my heart, and, in every sense about me, feels right. I have no regrets about not running and have great excitement and enthusiasm about the decision to run one more time.

ROLL CALL: One more time?

DASCHLE: Well, I mean, you take these things one at a time.

ROLL CALL: It sounded like this is probably it?

DASCHLE: Well, we’ll see. I’m not, as you know, I weighed retirement, running for president and running for re-election carefully over the last couple of years and so I’m going to make this decision and take a look down the road and see what decisions I make about my political future.

ROLL CALL: When did you fully commit for running for re-election?

DASCHLE: Last summer.

ROLL CALL: There was a point in late spring when some of your colleagues, during a late-night session, came off the floor and gathered in your office in a semi-impromptu meeting just to say how much they respected your leadership. They seemed to be trying to make sure you weren’t having any doubts about running for re-election. How much did that, their reaching out to you, help you with that decision?

DASCHLE: It really meant a lot. Well, it’s hard to quantify things like that. I would say that I, I was pretty certain almost immediately that I was going to run for re-election when I announced my decision not to run for the presidency. But I left open the possibility that I would see how things went over the course of the first few months of the new session and the more the session unfolded, the more excited I got and the more committed I was and then made the final decision when we decided to commit as we did to the campaign organization that we already had in place, raising the money and things we have to do.

ROLL CALL: Are you going to make a primary endorsement in this presidential election?

DASCHLE: No.

ROLL CALL: Are you absolutely going to stay out of it?

DASCHLE: Yeah, they’re good friends, but, South Dakota used to have a well-placed primary in the schedule and when we did I thought that it made sense to be more involved in the primary process. So I endorsed Dick Gephardt in ’88 and Bob Kerry in ’92. But I’m not planning to endorse anyone this time.

ROLL CALL: How are things shaping up politically for you back home. Regardless of who your opponent is, do you feel confident?

DASCHLE: I do. We’re going to win this race and the reason we are is because we will be the best organized, the best funded and the most engaged that I have ever been for an entire re-election cycle. We started much earlier than I have ever started before, we’ve committed resources and organization earlier than we have ever committed before. I am actually looking forward to it, I’m excited about a new race. There’s a certain challenge that I think those of us in politics enjoy from time to time and this is one of those for me.

ROLL CALL: So there is part of you that likes the challenge that someone like John Thune could pose?

DASCHLE: Yeah, you know I’m sure it’s similar to somebody in sports who likes a good, competitive race now and then. You know, if that happens, we’re up for it, we’re excited about it and we’re going to have fun doing it. If it isn’t as competitive, you take it as it comes.

ROLL CALL: What are the odds of becoming the Majority Leader January 2005?

DASCHLE: I really believe 50-50. On the minus side, we’ve lost some colleagues who could be easily re-elected, John Edwards, Bob Graham, Zell Miller. On the plus side, we’ve got good candidates in two of those three states right now. We’ve got Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina who is really one of our rising stars. We also have Erskine Bowles, who I think is in a really good position, some of the polls actually have him ahead right now. And Georgia is still a question mark, but in Florida we have several candidates who could do well. So, that is number one, we’re doing pretty well in those places we have retirements. Number two, all of the incumbents running right now are all ahead. No one is behind. By the way, it looks like California is going to be a nothing race, it’s really interesting. Barbara Boxer is going to come out of this thing in great shape. Number three, they have retirements in vulnerable seats that we think are great opportunities for us. I’d list three: Illinois, Alaska and Oklahoma. So, just to start, and we think Missouri is going to be in play with Nancy Farmer.

ROLL CALL: If Democrats did win back the majority, starting in either 2005 or 2007, would you want to be Majority Leader for the remainder of your term?

DASCHLE: Absolutely.

ROLL CALL: Really? You would want that role. Why not a couple years as leader, then a final couple years as a back-bencher or committee chairman like Trent Lott? DASCHLE: No, no, I mean, if I’m going to be in the Senate.

ROLL CALL: Trent Lott looks like he’s having fun not as leader?

DASCHLE: He is, he is.

ROLL CALL: Zell Miller has a book. He’s very critical, he’s very critical of you in the book — although he said he admires you as a person and whatnot. What are your observations on his observations?

DASCHLE: Well, it’s unfortunate that he feels that way. I disagree with him. I think we’re very competitive through the South and expect to be competitive in the next cycle. Zell Miller was one of the progressive voices of the South. And I believe that is why he was as popular as he was. He got elected and re-elected on the progressive voice. For whatever reason, he has changed his view philosophically and that’s his right to do so. But that doesn’t mean that what he did before or what he said before is wrong now. I think it’s just as right now as it was back then.

ROLL CALL: If President Bush is re-elected, do you think that it might be a better time in 2008 for you to run? DASCHLE: To run for president? It’s so far down the road, I can’t even begin to think. My focus, as you might expect, is entirely on next year. I want to be re-elected and I’m confident I will be and I’m and hopeful my colleagues will see fit to elect me as Democratic leader and I don’t take either one of those for granted.

ROLL CALL: We’ve heard that some Senators who are not voting with the Caucus on certain issues, even on things like Medicare and energy that you described as votes of conscience, that they’ve been given a message from your supporters that those votes will be remembered. Can you keep your Caucus together heading into an election year given some of these tough votes?

DASCHLE: Absolutely. You don’t forget these votes, but you don’t dwell on them either. I think that there is a combination here that has to be a part of any leadership style. My personal view is that obviously, you’ve got to do what you can to build that cohesion and support for a Caucus position. And while I don’t browbeat Members, I do try to educate them, persuade them, bring them to our point of view and remember when that doesn’t happen. But at the same time I think that you are detrimental and there are going to be a lot more of those votes out there coming up and I’m going to need them. So it isn’t my style to alienate a colleague for months at a time because he or she chose to oppose me the last time. I think you’ve got to keep working, keep building, but I think Caucus rewards go to those who are Caucus supporters.