Now Airing: Everyone Loves Tom

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:35pm

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), once pilloried by the Republicans as public enemy No. 1, has returned to star in one of Washington’s fabled second acts — as the darling of President-elect Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

Daschle, Obama’s pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, faces virtually no opposition as he seeks confirmation from the chamber he once commanded. Republicans and Democrats alike chalk up Daschle’s likely easy passage to a combination of factors, most notably the GOP’s desire to avoid early fights with the new administration and the longstanding tradition of Senators to show their current and former colleagues deference.

“All that happened to Tom Daschle is that he lost a re-election race in his home state. That can happen to any of us,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. “There’s nothing personal about that.”

Alexander called Daschle “an excellent choice” for HHS, and suggested that any obstructionist tag on the former Democratic leader carried more weight with South Dakota voters than with his Senate colleagues.

But the warm words stand in stark contrast to the treatment Daschle received at the hands of Republicans, who were still in the majority when Daschle was up for re-election in 2004. Facing a charismatic former House Member in John Thune (R), Daschle found himself targeted by GOP’s vaunted messaging and campaign machine.

Then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) actively campaigned in South Dakota against Daschle, breaking with the tradition of Senate leaders not traveling to their counterparts’ home state to actively seek their ouster. Republicans also branded Daschle as the “obstructionist in chief” and used video of him giving speeches to women’s organizations, the fact that he owned a home in Washington, D.C., and selected pieces of his voting record to cast him as an ultra-liberal, inside-the-Beltway politician out of touch with “average” South Dakotans.

Republicans also mobilized a national fundraising apparatus against Daschle and essentially set him up as a straw man in many other states, where Republican incumbents and challengers could use him as an example why voters needed to vote for them over their Democratic rivals.

The strategy paid off: Daschle, the sitting Minority Leader and one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington, was defeated, and Frist padded his majority significantly as Senate Republicans rode the obstructionist charge to a third straight electoral victory.

But four years later, the often ugly rhetoric of the 2004 campaign seems to have all but faded into the background, as Obama prepares to take control of the White House later this month and Democrats celebrate a second straight rout of Republicans at the polls. And much of the Daschle universe has been part of that revival.

Following his loss to Thune, Daschle essentially willed much of his campaign and Senate staff to Obama, and many of them, like former Chief of Staff Phil Schiliro, who is heading up Obama’s legislative affairs operation, have landed plum positions in the new administration.

And with the passage of time, Republicans’ views of Daschle, at least publicly, have softened.

The harshest thing Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had to say about the nominee was in regard to his call for a federal health board, which Hatch said “is a great concern of mine.”

But even so, Hatch said he would approve the nomination when the Finance Committee takes it up this week, and he expected a near unanimous approval.

“Republicans, even though they disagree with him on many issues, say he’s a class act,” Hatch said. “This is a tough place, especially if you’re a leader. But he’s very fair.”

It was also compelling, Hatch noted, for former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to introduce Daschle when he appeared before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week. During his remarks, Dole hailed his former adversary’s “integrity and fairness, which gave his Senate colleagues confidence regardless of differences.”

“We’ve said many times that a president should have some ability to appoint the people he wants in his administration, and unless they’ve done something really bad or are incompetent, we generally will not cut them down without serious reason,” a senior GOP aide said, adding that, “We wouldn’t pick him. … He won’t do what we would want, but that’s not our choice.”

Daschle is also benefiting from the Senate’s long-standing tradition of confirming nominees who have risen from their own ranks. Part of that stems from the fact that because there are only 100 people in “the world’s most exclusive club,” Senators often develop and maintain strong personal relationships, even if they often found themselves at odds on political and policy issues.

In Daschle’s case, he has remained a mainstay in Democratic politics, and every member of the Finance Committee has served with Daschle, an institutionalist who spent eight years in the House prior to his 18 in the Senate.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) noted that former Members often enjoy a smooth ride in the confirmation process, recalling that then-President Bill Clinton’s pick for Treasury secretary, the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), was approved by the Finance Committee before he even had a hearing.

“They know everybody. They know the issues. They’re qualified,” Dodd said.

But even Members who have rubbed their colleagues the wrong way — and whose nominations generated intense public opposition — have ultimately been confirmed.

For instance, former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who lost a bitter election contest in November 2000, was quickly confirmed as attorney general within the first few days of the Bush administration. Although dozens of Democratic Members opposed the nomination — and Democrats at the time said they had the votes to filibuster Ashcroft’s nomination — he was confirmed.

“There are time-honored traditions up there. He’s a former Member, so to the greatest extent practical people will be charitable,” said a former GOP leadership aide who worked in the chamber during Daschle’s tenure, adding that, “If Leader Dole was nominated for something by a President McCain, I’m sure he’d get a similar reception from a Democrat minority.”

“It’s one of the quirky hallmarks of the Senate,” the former aide said.

“There’s kind of a world view of being in the boys’ club,” a second former Republican leadership aide added, touting Daschle’s “in” as a former club member and lead officer. “I think because he was Leader, there’s more deference to him.”

The aide added that Daschle’s broad support and almost assured confirmation likely deter Republicans from making the confirmation process difficult.

“If Republicans are out to fight some battles, this isn’t the one. Daschle’s going to be confirmed,” the aide said.