Like many Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle faces a balancing act on the topic of the imminent war with Iraq. The vocal Democratic base passionately opposes war and believes that the administration is motivated by greed and a malicious will to dominate the Middle East. On the other side are vast numbers of moderates, independents, and undecided voters who mostly support the president’s pledge to eliminate the threat of Saddam Hussein.
In the span of several hours Monday, Daschle issued two statements aimed at the divergent views within his party. At a legislative conference of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees on Monday afternoon, Daschle issued a blistering indictment of Bush’s leadership in recent months. “I’m saddened that the president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we are now forced to war,” Daschle said. “Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn’t create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country.”
But after the president’s speech Monday night, Daschle struck a milder tone.
“If the president decides that force is the only remaining option to disarm Saddam Hussein, Democrats and Republicans will be unanimous in our strong support for our troops and for ensuring that they have all the tools and resources needed to be successful,” Daschle said. “If the United States does act militarily against Iraq, it is important that we continue diplomacy to pull together the broadest coalition to aid our efforts during and after the military conflict. America will need the support of our allies to rebuild Iraq once Saddam’s regime is toppled.”
Daschle’s second statement was overshadowed by the vitriol and timing of his first. Republican leaders have obviously never been big fans of Daschle, but even relatively milquetoasty personalities like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ripped the South Dakotan in a tone that made observers expect to see steam to come out of their ears.
“Those comments may not undermine the president as he leads us into war, and they may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come mighty close,” Hastert said. “Senator Daschle has spent more time criticizing the leadership of President Bush than he has spent criticizing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.”
“It is disheartening and shameful for Senator Daschle, who has previously advocated and authorized the use of force in Iraq, to now blame America first,” said Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Frist called Daschle’s comments “counterproductive” and “irresponsible.”
Among the firebrands, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay issued a statement saying, “Fermez la bouche, Monsieur Daschle” — “shut your mouth” in French.
While few Democratic lawmakers were critical of their leader on Tuesday, some of Daschle’s colleagues have different views on whether there’s any point to criticize the president’s strategies when the country is on the brink of war.
“I don’t think that’s constructive” to second-guess the 48-hour ultimatum, said Sen. Herb Kohl, Democrat of Wisconsin. “At this point, it’s almost just a debate. It doesn’t make much difference any more. We’re at the decisive moment… Being where we are at the moment, that debate is really not all that important any more. We’ve moved beyond that.”
“I think once the fighting starts, it is wise to postpone any further debate about the wisdom of the war until our troops are victorious and are no longer in harm’s way,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D., Ohio. “I don’t believe it’s appropriate in the midst of a war to carry out a divisive debate.”
“I would not have used those words that Daschle chose,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D., Massachusetts. “I’m a believer that there are alternatives. I wish we would pursue them. On both sides, whether against or for, we need to make sure that we keep this discussion civil and eloquent and serious.”
Daschle said Tuesday afternoon that he stands by his statement, that he still thinks Bush’s diplomacy efforts are a “failure” but that his comments should not be construed as not supporting U.S. troops.
Veteran political observers are scratching their heads over Daschle’s gambit.
“To me, he chose dynamite words — as in explosive,” says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at Brookings. “Each one was a little mini-blast. It would be a terrific statement if he was on campaign hustings in a midterm or presidential election… But it was a particularly unsubtle and inelegant way to do it at that moment.”
A source at the RNC speculated that Daschle’s rhetoric may be a trial balloon for the party’s presidential candidates.
“[The presidential candidates] have the most to lose — every word they say gets measured and they can go up or down in the polls based on it. Daschle may think he’s got nothing to lose, and that he can test this,” the source at the RNC says. “He may feel safe, but if you get way off the reservation as a political figure, you’ll get a lot of heat. Ask Jim Moran.”
Daschle’s comments came as former Green-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader was urging the Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “to criticize the president directly and on the core issue of the dangerous rush to invasion.”
“Now, in the remaining days before the outbreak of war, is the time for the Democratic party’s leaders to declare that while you of course support the troops and hope to minimize all dangers they face, that you oppose the president’s dangerous, illegal and immoral war-invasion and occupation,” Nader wrote in a letter to Democratic leaders.
Whether Daschle’s comments were aimed at the Democratic-party faithful or potential Democratic voters in the Green party, or were an effort to sway moderates currently supporting the war, or if they just reflect Daschle’s honest beliefs, they represent a dramatic shift in his leadership style.
“I have thought for some time that Daschle was a leader in the style of [Former Senate Majority Leader] George Mitchell — very low-key, where you hardly noticed the knives in your back until you took off your shirt,” Hess says. “Lately, he hasn’t been like that. This is a new Daschle. For all I know, he could have a new speechwriter or maybe he’s frustrated.”
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C., is a regular contributor to NRO.