Like Lyndon Johnson, Daschle Has Trouble Balancing Two Jobs

Posted January 20, 2004 at 4:27pm

In his recent memoir, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) says he read Robert Caro’s latest tome on Lyndon B. Johnson’s rise to power. It shows.

In “Master of the Senate,” Caro carefully explains LBJ’s brilliance at political gymnastics. LBJ portrayed himself as a conservative Democrat back in Texas while aggressively courting all the ADA liberals he needed to maintain his power as Senate leader. Daschle has followed the LBJ model.

LBJ was elevated to the White House before he had to face a final reckoning in Texas, but some Senate leaders are not so fortunate. It’s no small task for Senate leaders to maintain such a balancing act, something to which LBJ’s immediate predecessors could attest.

Note exhibit A, Sen. Scott Lucas (Ill.), elected Democratic leader in 1949 and defeated in his re-election bid in 1950. Note exhibit B, Sen. Ernest McFarland (Ariz.), who was elected Democratic leader in 1951 and defeated back home in 1952 by a 43-year-old conservative upstart named Barry Goldwater.

Anticipating the fate of Lucas and McFarland, Daschle has made plans to repulse the inevitable criticism from his new opponent, 43-year-old ex-Rep. John Thune (R). In one of the more bizarre rituals of last year, Daschle’s campaign operatives in South Dakota constantly bragged about how often Daschle supports President Bush. Their strategy, carried off with a straight face, has been to tout how much the titular head of the Democratic Party supports a Republican president in an “us versus them” age, when swing voters are disappearing, and when the parties are implementing “get out the base vote” plans.

One can understand the strategy. Bush won South Dakota by 22 points in 2000 and a Democrat has not won the presidential vote in the state for 40 years.

The liberal alternative to the Drudge Report, Buzzflash.com, recently picked up on Daschle’s strategy and, unsurprisingly, called for his resignation as Minority Leader. Stories in National Journal, The New Republic, The Nation and The American Prospect have echoed liberals’ growing exasperation with Daschle. Such attacks on Daschle are a portent of things to come.

Daschle, as the leader of the party, will be expected to keep constant pressure on President Bush. Being the full-time obstructionist, however, will be disastrous back in Bush country in South Dakota. If he doesn’t do his duty, on the other hand, he virtually guarantees he won’t be re-elected as Democratic leader.

Unlike LBJ, whose Senate reign was aided by a bloc of Southern conservative Democrats, Daschle’s Caucus is close to being devoid of Southerners. The impending departure of so many Southern Senators means Daschle’s Caucus will be even more liberal, make more demands to block the president’s agenda and therefore further jeopardize his home-state re-election.

Instead of a classic campaign of clashing issues, Daschle wants the campaign in South Dakota to be about personality, image and “clout.” Daschle hopes the accumulation of personal contact over the years and his “ability to deliver” will carry him through.

Asking voters to overrule their principled positions on issues because they may think Daschle is charming is an extreme form of political cynicism, however, which many voters may reject. Furthermore, last spring Daschle did more damage to his personal standing than any opponent could do when he attacked the president on the eve of war.

The “clout” argument is also rapidly evaporating. Experts agree that with Senate retirements in the South the chances of Daschle becoming Majority Leader again are negligible. And his ability to “deliver” was seriously questioned after he failed to pass the energy bill, perhaps the single most important piece of legislation to South Dakota in 20 years because of the ethanol provisions.

Some speculate that as a constant enemy of the president, Daschle actually makes it more difficult to get things done for South Dakota. The ethanol bill is a perfect distillation of Daschle’s dilemma.

His Caucus and his liberal interest-group supporters hated the overall bill, so he could not actively work for passage. Daschle therefore sat on the sidelines while the ethanol supporters in South Dakota watched in stunned horror.

Daschle had to vote for the bill, however, since he had been running ads all summer about how he could “deliver” on ethanol. In one clumsy transaction, Daschle alienated his liberal supporters by voting for the bill and betrayed the ethanol supporters in his state by failing to even try to use his “clout” to pass the bill.

Daschle’s ability to solve the dilemma has never been tested. His last serious opponent was in 1986, when Daschle ran as vehemently anti-abortion rights and passionately pro-farmer against a Senator (considered the weakest incumbent in the nation that year) with less money and who was hobbled by a nasty primary challenge. In 1992, he ran against one of my high school teachers, a political unknown, and outspent her 9-1 in a run-away. In 1998, he ran against another unknown and outspent him 14-1.

In contrast to 1986, Daschle now sends fundraising letters for NARAL Pro-Choice America and has fumbled on ethanol.

By next fall, it’s difficult to envision a bright future for Daschle, even if he somehow manages to survive his Senate race. If Bush wins big, Democrats will be looking for new leadership, especially after the flood of presidential legislation that Daschle allowed to pass Congress in the past few years. After the 2002 midterm disaster, some were already calling for Daschle to be replaced (after being elected leader, it should be noted, LBJ won back the majority for the Democrats).

Also, after a bruising re-election fight and a year of racing to the right on many issues, Daschle’s prospects in future Democratic presidential primaries will be somewhere between nil and zilch.

In the end, perhaps Daschle’s strategy of disguising his views and relying on his multimillion-dollar media barrage will save his Senate seat.

Or perhaps the house of cards will come tumbling down and the cynicism of the entire enterprise will be exposed. For the sake of Daschle, maybe he should have run for president. Like LBJ.

Jon Lauck is an assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University.