Deconstructing Tom Daschle

Tom Daschle would seem to be the politician’s politician – the perfect facade upon which his party may post its most popular and special-interest-appeasing ideas. He is relatively soft-spoken, well-tempered and confrontational only insofar as he must be. He speaks comparatively well, is nowhere near as easy to hate as Ted Kennedy and holds his own with the opposition’s leadership. A Democrat for the Republican Age, one might say.

Nonetheless, he has a formidable task before him, leading into this year’s Senate elections: namely to persuade the public that a “logically indefensible” (Bob Reischauer, Urban Institute) democratic platform is the best prescription for America’s economic woes. What’s more, he must endeavor to carry out such an errand in the face of a presidential approval rating in excess of 80 percent.

And that’s not the half of it. Daschle has more than his party’s welfare to consider: after having clearly positioned himself as one of the foremost democratic contenders for the next presidential election, he cannot expect to retain the clout and the pristine image necessary for a 2004 run if the party under his leadership fails to pick up a significant number of congressional seats. No doubt, such failure would provide deadly ammo for the arsenals of such opportunistic hopefuls as John Edwards, John Kerry, Al Gore and, dare I suggest, the ever-contending non-contender. . . Mrs. Hillary Clinton.

So, with a president formerly mocked for his supposed ignorance of international affairs now flying high on the wings of success in Afghanistan, where is Mr. Daschle to scour for some semblance of hope? He must attack domestic policy, naturally. With the U.S. economy bogged in recession after the investment debacles and terrorist mayhem of 2001, Daschle has the perfect opportunity to paint the Bush administration with undue culpability. Indeed, it is Bush’s one major domestic achievement that accounts for the piece de resistance of the Democrats’ pre-election rhetoric: last year’s tax cut bill. Daschle and company have been quick to assert that said tax cuts grossly exacerbated the nation’s fiscal troubles — but fear not: they have their own battery of tax cuts and spending plans to right the administration’s wrong. Naturally, since – they allege – the Bush tax cuts drained the capital that would have been used to implement popular initiatives, such as prescription-drug benefits, the Social Security purse (which both parties swore not to touch, prior to Sept.11) will have to be tapped. A less than comforting thought, when one considers the fact that the baby-boom generation is coming of age to receive its benefits, as it were.

Even the progressively left-leaning Economist takes a harsh view of Daschle’s political stunts: “Another honest corollary is that spending should be held down. But Mr. Daschle has done nothing to stop pork-laden spending, such as the Farm Bill and offered his own menu of tax cuts and spending” (Jan. 12). It must be acknowledged that, regarding the Farm Bill, Daschle’s hands are more or less politically tied, given that his home state is agrarian South Dakota. (Indeed, he and Sen. Tim Johnson are even pushing the President to fund costly “critical water projects” across South Dakota). Moreover, he cannot entirely “cut out” tax cuts, without alienating himself from the twelve Democrats in the senate who voted in favor of the Bush cuts.

So, while his positions are politically necessary (for a Democrat in his situation), the term “logically indefensible,” (not to mention hypocritical) certainly applies to Mr. Daschle’s platform. It is no small wonder that he chose to be the first high-ranking U.S. emissary to Afghanistan: he and his party need all the positive attention possible before “mid-term” examinations.

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