These days, any self-respecting Democrat has to feel sorry for Tom Daschle. Once the leader of Democratic opposition to the Bush administration, Daschle has now dropped off the political radar screen. He has become the subject of that Washington adage: If you are not in the presidential news cycle, you are simply not in the news cycle.
More importantly, last week, John Thune, a former congressman and a close friend of President Bush, announced that he would run against Daschle in South Dakota in the 2004 election. To make matters worse, Bush has promised full White House support, which guarantees both campaign funds and presidential appearances for Thune.
Daschle's re-election will be difficult for two main reasons. First, he is facing a formidable opponent. Thune is one of the most popular Republicans in South Dakota. As the representative-at-large for the state in Congress, Thune impressed Republican leadership with his affable nature and his party-line voting record. Because of his popularity, Thune was nominated by the GOP to run against South Dakota's other senator, Tim Johnson, in 2002. Thune almost matched the incumbent Democrat in campaign funds with nearly $6 million. Thune lost, but only by 524 votes. Now, Thune will have a second chance, and this November, Bush will be at the top of the Republican ticket.
This brings us to Daschle's second challenge: President Bush. Bush is incredibly popular in South Dakota. He won the state with 60 percent of the vote in 2000, and his approval ratings in the state continue to be high. Moreover, Bush is the most aggressive presidential campaign fundraiser in American history, and his staff has pinpointed this race as a top priority in Bush's campaign schedule. Daschle will not only have to contend with the Bush money machine, but he will have to explain why he opposed the Bush administration so often in the Senate and why he was right to do so.
Yet Daschle can win this race. Like Thune, he will have a sizeable war chest for the campaign (he already has $3.7 million and Thune has nothing at the moment). Moreover, in the same way Republicans are targeting the race, Democrats across the country recognize the political import a Daschle victory would bring, and are consequently committed to getting him reelected.
Daschle also has cleverly advanced South Dakota's interests, primarily the state's agricultural interests. He put together a $6 billion package of emergency aid for farmers in 1998. Just recently, he demanded that the FDA require country-of-origin labeling on all beefan issue of salience to the South Dakotan farmer.
Daschle often declares that his leadership position in the Senate has allowed him to place his state's interests at the top of the domestic agenda, and although I disagree with the principle of such a practice, I recognize that he will reap the benefits of his pork-barreling labors.
But Tom Daschle needs to win his Senate seat not only to keep himself politically alive. Tom Daschle needs to win in 2004 to keep the Democrats politically viable in the Senate.
Daschle's tenure as Democratic leader in the Senate (starting in 1995) has been marked by success and defeat, but Daschle has built a reputation among his Senate colleagues as a deceptively mild-mannered party leader who has a knack for building a consensus.
In fact, Daschle has been so effective in his maneuverings as Minority Leader that many Republicans call Daschle an "obstructionist." Yet, to this liberal, any effort to obstruct giving tax cuts to the wealthiest one percent of the population, barring gays from the Boy Scouts, or confirming John Ashcroft as attorney general deserves praise, not condemnation.
With the notable exception of his vote authorizing a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, Tom Daschle has fought the Bush administration's legislative agenda adamantly and without reservation. To his credit, he openly criticized the Iraqi war from the beginning. The day Bush addressed the nation, outlining the preemptive strike, Daschle held a press-conference saying, "I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war. Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical to our country"a statement that will undoubtedly resurface during his re-election campaign.
At a time when the Democratic Party is suffering from disagreement within the party and criticism from the opposition, Democrats need Tom Daschle in the Senate. Democrats will need him even more if, God forbid, Bush gets re-elected. With a second Bush administration, the Senate would likely become the last defensean Alamo of opposition and a fortress that Tom Daschle could aptly command.