Daschle and Destiny

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 FreeRepublic.com and NewsMax.com 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."

"At the time, I think people were very pissy," says the Republican strategist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, downplaying the Lott memo. Yet GOP rhetoric over the past seven months shows, at the very least, the subliminal persistence of the belief that Daschle is an illegitimate and perhaps even crooked usurper -- and therefore not entitled to mount substantial political opposition to the president.

Take, for example, a recent missive from a direct-mail specialist for the right, Richard Viguerie of ConservativeHQ.com. Calling on supporters to "Stand Up to Daschle's Tyranny," Viguerie provided a faxgram that could be sent to all 50 Democratic senators simultaneously, decrying the Daschle-led filibuster of the Republican economic stimulus bill. "Partisan politics is one thing -- the overthrow of majority rule is quite another," read the message. Viguerie was inspired by a recent syndicated column in which Paul Craig Roberts fulminated that Democrats "are not loath to use power illegitimately if it advances their agenda . . . The United States is on the verge of one party rule." This "illegitimacy attack," as the rhetoric-tracking Web site Spinsanity.com has called it, goes well beyond the usual nastiness of politics in its blanket dismissal of ideological opposition.

The attack on Daschle's legitimacy appears to spring from a worldview that Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley has called the GOP's sense of "Manifest Destiny." At the very least, this outlook dates to Bill Clinton's defeat of the first George Bush after three terms of Republican presidential rule. Judging from their shock and resentment, some intoxicated conservatives seem to have presumed that the Reagan-Bush era marked the end of history. And so, as Joe Conason and Gene Lyons write in The Hunting of the President, "from the beginning, his enemies portrayed Clinton as unworthy to occupy the office of the president of the United States."

As with Clinton, the attack on Daschle -- whether it involves seeking out scandals or decrying his partisanship -- has been thoroughly a priori in its reasoning, assuming nefariousness or illegitimacy preemptively and without debate. A May 2001 discussion thread on the site FreeRepublic.com, for example, began from the stunning cart-before-horse assumption that there simply must be skeletons to unearth if only one digs in the right place. "Please help me flesh out the various scandals that Daschle is involved in," wrote one contributor.

"There is something about his wife's employment I think that might be a conflict of interest. Maybe not," wrote another. There was little doubt where the exercise was headed: "If we find these scandals we give them to FOX . . . heheheh."

The White House has kept its hands off Daschle-scandal mongering, and Fox News never did run that show. But by framing Daschle as a partisan and an obstructionist whenever he does his job -- including through constitutional parliamentary tactics like the filibuster -- Bush implies that although he himself may pursue his political objectives, Daschle does not have the same right.

Such notions of entitlement recall another form of a priori thought popular on the Bush team -- one that involves assumptions about fate and the notion that Bush is walking a path that has been trod before. "The key advisers are obsessed with Bush I, because they can easily see what happened to Bush's father happening to Bush II," notes the University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

Hence the George Mitchell analogy. Sabato points to any number of differences between Daschle and Mitchell -- from style to political pedigree -- but says "that's not how the Bush people see the constellation. They have this twilight-zone nightmare that they've seen this before, they've been through this before."

Apparently, they saw Serendipity a time too many.

Forget for a moment the fatalism, the Manifest Destiny, the bitterness left over from 1992: Can Daschle-bashing succeed? Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute finds it "difficult to foresee a true Daschle-demonization campaign working for the long run," largely because Daschle is just so much less abrasive than, say, Newt Gingrich. Calling George Mitchell "partisan" didn't exactly drive him from the political stage. Still, Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg notes that the GOP's negative language has been cleverly chosen: "'Partisan' and 'obstructionist' are the best you can do anywhere, anytime. The alternative would be arguing substance."

The voters in Daschle's home state are certainly going to hear him called those names. Norquist explains Republican strategy by noting that "the soft underbelly for Daschle is the actual voters of South Dakota," whose prairie conservatism may incline them to accept Bush's rhetoric about bipartisanship. He recalls the battle between Hercules and Antaeus, the giant whose power derived from the earth and who grew stronger each time Hercules threw him down: "Daschle, in D.C., that's earth for him, that's going to the ground, that's where he receives his strength. But you go to South Dakota, . . ." It seems the conservative group "The Club for Growth" also thinks Daschle's a giant: They plan to pump a staggering $500,000 into attack ads against him in South Dakota in 2002, despite the fact that Daschle's not running for anything and the state's advertising rates are notoriously cheap.

Newt Gingrich was larger-than-life as well, and Clinton succeeded in labeling him a partisan and an obstructionist. But though Democratic rhetoric at that time was undoubtedly harsh and sometimes unfair, it never implied that Gingrich's actions were de facto illegitimate. By contrast, when Bush stated in a recent speech, "We ought not to revert to the old ways that used to dominate Washington, D.C.," it amounted to suggesting that Daschle's dissent, by its very nature, was out of bounds. Bush's stunning wartime popularity has given such innuendo a new luster of legitimacy -- one not lost on the GOP's second in command after Lott, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who recently accused Daschle of "almost declaring war" on the president. So you won't be surprised to hear that the Family Research Council also likened Daschle to Saddam Hussein.

As the political battle over the economy unfolds this year, and as Republicans try to link the war abroad to policy at home, attacks on Daschle will undoubtedly gather steam. There will be kitchen-sink broadsides like the Hussein reference; there will be talk of scandal and impropriety; and there will be more complaints that Daschle is actually George Mitchell in disguise -- a bogeyman the Bush team would still like to expunge from the past. All of which amply demonstrates that Daschle-bashing is, in large part, driven by fear. So forget about Bush's supposed fate. The real question is this: Does Tom Daschle dare disturb the universe?