Like No Other Time
The 107th Congress and the Two Years That Changed America Forever
by Tom Daschle
Crown, 304 pp., $25
IN SOUTH DAKOTA, Tom Daschle is known for wooing the opposition. And, the truth is, he has to woo--since South Dakota Republicans have a ten-point registration advantage over Democrats. In 1992, he even called to woo me, a lowly college junior at the time, and we visited for over forty minutes. The subject was a column I had written for the college newspaper asking why he voted with northeastern liberals such as George Mitchell. It was the early stages of Daschle's rise to power under Mitchell's tutelage, and he was clearly nervous about the friction between serving under Mitchell and representing a very non-Mitchell sort of state.
In his new memoir, "Like No Other Time," Daschle concedes that the "majority of South Dakotans are conservatives." But the contradictions between Daschle's leadership obligations and his state's conservative leanings have so far not hobbled his Senate campaigns. Since he began his ascent under Mitchell, Daschle's opponents have been unknown and unfunded. The 2004 race could be an ordeal, however, as Daschle's ability to woo his way around the contradictions may finally collapse.
Daschle's book reviews various political moments of the last three years: the 2000 election, the evenly divided Senate, Senator Jeffords's abandonment of the Republicans, Daschle's reign as Senate majority leader, the attacks of September 11, and the 2002 midterm elections. The book is Daschle's gloss on events, of course, and it's basically campaign literature. Its chronology could have included the Senate impeachment trial of 1999, for example, but that would be politically foolish (saving Clinton's bacon was not high on the list of priorities for South Dakota voters). Instead, Daschle begins with a partisan jab: The 2000 presidential election was "ended not by voters, but by judges," as Gore was "cheated in Florida."
With an eye to his 2004 Senate bid in a state where 60 percent of voters supported President Bush in 2000 (and haven't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in forty years), Daschle wants to be seen as something of a friend of Bush. He presses the absurd argument that he does not obstruct the president's agenda--indeed, the "entire concept of 'obstructionism' simply makes no sense." For Daschle, such criticism is an attempt to "silence the voices of opposition in a democratic society" and to "invite something in the way of autocracy." It was Republican senators who "turned the filibuster into an art form in the 1990s" and unfairly used it after the Jeffords switch.
He particularly blames Bush for the tone of Washington politics. Daschle says he wanted more Eisenhower-esque "leadership breakfasts" with the president to foster bipartisanship. While bemoaning the "polarization and partisanship" in Washington, Daschle labels a Bush judicial nominee an "apologist for racist cross burners." He also notes how President Bush and his advisers were "cutting their losses on politically popular issues." Daschle knows of what he speaks, having recently voted for a ban on lawsuits against the gun industry and a ban on partial-birth abortions.
The assumption that voters won't notice such hypocrisy is a sign that Daschle believes contradictions can be papered over with political maneuvering and spin. Contrasting Daschle to George McGovern underscores how much American liberalism has shriveled in a half-century. McGovern succeeded in South Dakota politics after World War II as an articulate war hero/professor, a political risk-taker with a grand vision. McGovern left his safe academic post to organize the state's Democratic party--at a time when Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state legislature 108 to 2. When he became a senator, he drew upon the intellectual traditions of Progressivism and the Social Gospel to shape his views. Daschle, on the other hand, hires Clinton operatives to conduct focus groups and take polls. McGovern's soft-spoken approach was moving, his voice that of a Methodist minister's son and a deliberative scholar, one who respected the importance of rationality in democratic discourse. Daschle tries to imitate the McGovern style, but he just sounds mousy.