Man Without Qualities

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Daschle Descending

The Man Without Qualities has noted in prior posts that the 2004 re-election effort of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is in deep trouble. He has amazingly high "negative" poll numbers (36%). He has spent more than One Million Dollars on campaign (pre-campaign?) advertising in an effort to correct the number - but word from South Dakota is that the huge (for South Dakota) expenditures haven't moved the numbers at all. All of this has been pretty well and widely known for some time - as has the likelihood that Senator Daschle would probably be challenged by Republican John Thune, South Dakota's former lone member of the House of Representives.

Now the New York Times waddles in to acknowledge its dim awareness of the matter:

Mr. Daschle is facing what could be the toughest campaign of his career, against John Thune, a former Republican member of the House and a close ally of President Bush, in South Dakota, where Mr. Bush is hugely popular. ... [B]oth Republicans and Democrats agree that the candidacy of Mr. Thune, who lost to South Dakota's junior senator, Tim Johnson, by just 524 votes in 2002, puts Mr. Daschle in a difficult spot. "A real challenge" is how [Senator John B. Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana] described it. .... There is every indication ... that the race will be bruising, with Mr. Daschle's job performance the central issue.

Yes, indeed. And that "challenge" starts with the likelihood that Mr. Thune may not have lost to Mr. Johnson at all, since there is plenty of evidence that Mr. Johnson's tiny vote advantage was the product of electoral fraud. That's yesterday's news, and Mr. Thune had the guts and sense of public responsibility not to cause a big Gore-style stink at the time. All of which helps create a sense with voters that Mr. Thune puts them first - not his chance to occupy some powerful office - and that puts him personally in a very nice position to challenge Mr. Daschle this time around.

Mr. Johnson's re-election is also a fairly large negative for Mr. Daschle because it means that South Dakota is now stuck with two Senators in the minority Democratic party at a time when the Senate is probably just going to become more Republican. That means that the two South Dakota Senators can claim not a single Senate committee chair between them. A well-regarded junior Republican Senator like Mr. Thune would likely have more clout than either of Messrs. Johnson or Daschle. South Dakota is a small state, and it receives a lot of federal money. As is true in many small states, South Dakota voters care a good deal relative to voters in larger states about the "clout" their Senators carry in Washington. Mr. Daschle is, of course, aware of this (even the Times is aware of this), and he is again campaigning largely on the basis of that "clout." As the Times quotes Mr. Daschle as saying:

"What I have said to my people in South Dakota is that being the Democratic leader of the United States Senate allows me to put South Dakota's agenda on the national agenda."

The problem for Mr. Daschle in this line of argument is that voters don't care if their Senator can put South Dakota's agenda on the national agenda - they care about whether their Senator can actually get South Dakota's agenda passed into legislation. For example, the Times says Senator Daschle put South Dakota's agenda on the national agenda (and made a big show of it in South Dakota) rather adroitly on Wednesday, when he called a news conference to demand that the White House immediately require country-of-origin labeling for supermarket beef. The issue is important to South Dakota ranchers. All of which is very true. But if Mr. Daschle can't get the law changed as he and South Dakota ranchers desire, the ranchers aren't going to count his "clout" for very much. It's not likely that Mr. Bush and the Republicans are going to give this wounded and vulnerable Democrat what he wants and needs for re-election when this Democrat takes every opportunity to savage the President. In the Senate, Mr. [Trent] Lott said, Republicans will undoubtedly watch Mr. Daschle "very closely and try to keep him from taking credit for things."

Mr. Thune would be in a position to do a lot better job for those South Dakota ranchers.

That Mr. Daschle is remarkably cloutless is also apparent from his inability to obtain passage of the admittedly dreadful and thankfully recently-deceased energy bill:

Republicans intend to hit Mr. Daschle hard on the energy bill that failed in the Senate last year. Mr. Daschle backed the measure, and promoted a provision to expand the use of corn-based ethanol - an issue of extreme importance to South Dakota's farmers. But many Democrats voted against the bill, and their leader did not try to stop them.

But all of those problems would be less significant if it weren't for one bigger conundrum: The very Senate Democratic Leader position that gives Mr. Daschle whatever "clout" he has left, also undermines his ability to keep separate his role of "just plain, decent Tom" who rolls up in a pickup truck dressed in denim and flannel when he's on the South Dakota campaign trail and the entirely inconsistent role of ultra-liberal Washington sharpie operator in three thousand dollar suits that is intrinsic to his being Senate Democratic Leader. Mr. Daschle has been getting away with this political bigamy since at least 1994, when he became Senate Democratic Leader. But a Democrat was in the White House in 1994, and before 2000 South Dakota voters never witnessed the spectacle of Mr. Daschle in harsh conflict with a President whose agenda was much more like South Dakota's than the one advanced by Senator Daschle. But by now the voters have seen that spectacle repeatedly. That is, South Dakota voters may finally be catching on that Mr. Daschle is advancing an agenda whose overall scope is very different from one they favor.

It's that Washington sharpie - not "plain, decent Tom" - who suggested that Mr. Bush knew about September 11 before the fact, and then denied having said that. The voters saw that on television, and they know it was a big deal.

It's that Washington sharpie - not "plain, decent Tom" - who leads the filibusters of so many of Mr. Bush's judicial nominees because they believe in things with which South Dakota voters mostly agree. The voters see that on television, and they know it is a big deal.

It was that Washington sharpie - not "plain, decent Tom" - who last year, on the eve of the United States invasion of Iraq, ... said he was saddened that Mr. Bush had "failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war." The voters saw that on television, and they know it is a big deal.

And it's that Washington sharpie who perpetrated a whole lot more.

But it's "plain, decent Tom" who has to explain it all. Democrats are aware of the conflict, and the Times delicately describes their plans to help Senator Daschle continue his double life with the note that Democrats say they will rally around their leader, giving him the leeway to return home to campaign and take a lower profile on issues where the Democratic position conflicts with the interests of South Dakota voters. Isn't that Times phrasing cute? The seams in all that denim and flannel are showing pretty badly this time around.

The Times article gracefully omits all references to the copious and quite available political polls that show the extent of Senator Daschle's predicament. And although the Times notes that the Senator has raised and spent a lot of money already, the Times curiously does not address whether those expenditures have been at all effective. Nor does the Times address the critical questions of whether Mr. Daschle is himself still effective or is perceived to be effective by South Dakotans. O, well - still a few bugs in the reporter systems.

But all of the Times omissions can't change the fact that a combination of Senator Daschle's Democratic Leadership position, South Dakota's conservative leanings and the new Republican dominance of Washington is making his life as frantic as that of a bigamist who suddenly can't keep his long-distance calls to his second wife from showing up on the telephone bill his first wife pays every month.

MORE ON SOUTH DAKOTA POLITICS and still more on Daschle/Thune.

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