As reporters focus on upcoming speeches from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush, many delegates in New York City are buzzing about a Senate race that could mean the end of Tom Daschle's political career. Daschle is facing John Thune, a well-spoken former member of the House, and polls show the race is very close. A new poll released yesterday by the National Republican Senatorial Committee shows Thune leading Daschle.
Which might explain why Daschle, running in conservative South Dakota, is running a television ad that shows him hugging President Bush while a newspaper headline blares, "Daschle: Time to Unite Behind Troops, Bush."
Republicans are furious. Thune called the ad "completely hypocritical," and other GOPers are calling for the ad to be taken off the air. Republican National Committee counsel Charles Spies sent a complaining missive to the Daschle campaign: "As you are no doubt aware, President Bush has not indicated any support for your campaign and, in fact, has endorsed your opponent, John Thune. The implication from your advertisement that President Bush supports you is false and misleading." Dashcle's campaign has thus far refused.
It's certainly fair for Daschle to highlight his support for Bush. But it's also somewhat ironic. Daschle was one of the Bush Administration's chief critics in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. Two weeks before the start of that conflict, Daschle and Nancy Pelosi, his counterpart in the House of Representatives, lashed out at Bush. They did so, according to an account in the March 7, 2003, Washington Post, "because they think war is imminent."
Daschle stepped up his criticism as the war loomed. "I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're forced to war," Daschle said on March 17, 2003. "Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort so critical for our country."
The harshness of Daschle's attack - suggesting a cause-and-effect relationship between American casualties and Bush Administration diplomacy - prompted reporters to ask him if he really meant what he had said. "I stand by my statement," said Daschle, one day later.
It was an unfortunate statement and, coming three days before the war, couldn't have been more poorly timed. (Daschle's comments were among the items that led the news on broadcasts throughout the Middle East even as U.S. troops made their final preparations for the invasion.)
Daschle's comments were as hypocritical as they were disappointing. Throughout the 1990s, few politicians spent more time calling for unity in the conduct of foreign policy. Daschle was especially outspoken on the subject of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
"I hope Saddam Hussein and those who are in control of the Iraqi government clearly understand the resolve and determination of this administration and this country. This may be a political year, . . . but on this issue there can be no disunity. There can be no lack of cohesion. We stand united, Republicans and Democrats, determined to send as clear a message with as clear a resolve as we can articulate: Saddam Hussein's actions will not be tolerated. His willingness to brutally attack Kurds in northern Iraq and abrogate U.N. resolutions is simply unacceptable. We intend to make that point clear with the use of force, with the use of legislative language, and with the use of other actions that the president and the Congress have at their disposal."
So said Daschle in September of 1996. He was equally emphatic about the need for unity in February 1998. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced yet another last-chance deal that would allow Saddam Hussein to continue his defiance of UN resolutions. Then-Majority Leader Trent Lott criticized the UN chief, who had called Saddam Hussein a man he could "do business with." (An unfortunate bit of phrasing given the postwar revelations of UN's Oil-for-Food corruption.) Daschle again called for unity.
"I don't know what purpose it serves by attacking one another at this point. I mean, if ever there was a time for us to present a unified front to Iraq, this ought to be it. . . . Let's not . . . send all kinds of erroneous messages to Iraq about what kind of unity there is within the community."
No one can blame Tom Daschle for embracing President Bush, given his increasingly unpleasant electoral reality. But let's not forget that Daschle's uneven calls for unity seem to have more to do with who is in the White House than dealing with international threats.