Politics & Policy

The Old Daschle Playbook

The Senate Minority Leader first ran like a nice Republican.

Tom Daschle showed at the Democratic Convention Tuesday night, but he was quickly out of town. The Senate Minority Leader has his own race to worry about. John Kerry can take care of his own.

On June 1, Democrat Stephanie Herseth prevailed 51 percent-49 percent in the House special election in South Dakota over Republican Larry Diedrich. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that “[t]hose who listen to Herseth and Diedrich side by side often say there isn’t much difference between them.” When the Argus endorsed Herseth, the editors also said “there’s hardly a whiff of difference between them on the key issues they would face in Washington, D.C.” When the Aberdeen American News endorsed Herseth, the editors similarly concluded, “there’s not much difference between the candidates.” Such statements stem from Herseth’s strategy, which was to co-opt the Republican agenda. As the Argus reported, “Herseth sought to discard the liberal label, saying she was going to be an independent voice for her constituents. She demonstrated that with her support of President Bush for his handling of the war and for a constitutional amendment on marriage.” Herseth also supported renewal of the Patriot Act and touted her A-rating from the NRA. Diedrich told the New York Times: “She has done a very good job of running as a Republican.” With regard to the presidential candidacy of John Kerry, Herseth practiced what the Argus called the “politics of avoidance.” Asked about Kerry coming to campaign for her, she “laughed” at the idea: “I just don’t see there would be any interest from my campaign or the national party.”

Herseth was employing Tom Daschle’s victory model from 1978, the year he was first elected to Congress. Herseth even hired Daschle’s campaign manager from 1978 to give her advice. In 1978, Daschle assiduously avoided endorsing the unpopular policies of President Carter, whose negatives in South Dakota were 40 percent (today, Kerry’s are 45 percent). Like Herseth in 2004, Daschle ran on personality and “nice-ness.” Stuart Rothenberg reported that “Herseth has been trying to make the special election a popularity contest” and the New York Times reported on her “star quality.” The Argus picked up on the strategy and ran stories under headlines like “Some opt for gentle politics” and “‘Nice’ image appeals to many S.D. voters.” In 1978 the Argus similarly said that Daschle had “built a ‘nice-guy’ image through his door-to-door campaigning and media.” Daschle’s opponent was Leo Thorsness, who had been put through the wringer in a 1974 challenge to Senator George McGovern and still suffered the effects. The Argus reported that in 1978 he still had a “hard public image” and had negatives in the state of 28 percent, second only to President Carter.

In addition to creating a positive image, Daschle embraced conservative issues. The late 1970s witnessed the early stages of Reaganism, the crystallization of the anti-tax movement, and growing attacks on “big government” spending and its relation to the decade’s inflationary spiral. In keeping with the times, Daschle attacked “our bloated federal bureaucracy” and said “people are frustrated with an increasingly distant and removed federal government” and advocated a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Since George McGovern and Robert Byrd, then Democratic leader in the Senate, opposed the measure, it afforded Daschle some separation from establishment liberalism. Daschle, according to the Argus Leader, “acknowledged that such calls traditionally have come from Republicans” and so firmed up his credentials as an old-line Republican, Eisenhoweresque budget disciplinarian. When the Argus Leader endorsed Daschle the editors said that Daschle “has voiced conservative ideas” such as promoting “an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would mandate fiscal responsibility.” Daschle also knew the idea would be popular. A 1979 poll from Pat Caddell’s Cambridge Survey Research showed that 50 percent of South Dakotans supported the convening of a constitutional convention to balance the budget.

Daschle also emphasized agricultural issues, which is an obvious matter in Eastern South Dakota, and embraced the common 1970s tactic of populist bashing of oil companies. Caddell’s polling found that 74 percent of South Dakotans thought that oil companies were responsible for the decade’s gas shortages and inflation. Daschle channeled these feelings into a debate over apparent oil company opposition to an insulation tax credit. Daschle: “If there is one thing homeowners have told me as I’ve gone door-to-door it is that they need insulation in their homes” (sort of like his driving tour in August 2003, which focused on prescription drug prices and during which, wouldn’t you know it, everyone told him how terrible drug prices were). Daschle also said “it lays bare the shameful way our Congress is manipulated by the oil and gas lobby.” The long-forgotten insulation tax-credit became a common Daschle tactic. In the early 1980s, a South Dakota reporter told the “Rothenberg Political Report” that Daschle was “good at seizing [small] issues… and getting mileage from them.” Daschle has continued to focus on mini-proposals, avoiding association with the national party, and, as Rothenberg reported, “taken pains not to be identified as a classic Kennedy-McGovern liberal” in Republican-leaning South Dakota.

During that first campaign Daschle also sought to co-opt social issues. In the 1970s, South Dakota and the nation were roiled by the politics of abortion. The same Caddell poll found abortion the “most potent ’single-issue’ factor” in South Dakota politics. Senator McGovern, who was up for reelection in 1980 and was pro-choice, became entangled in some high-profile disputes with the Catholic church over his position. His aides wrote him memos telling him he must begin “mending fences with South Dakota Catholics.” Right to Life organizations were becoming better organized in South Dakota and nationally in the mid-70s and local priests were becoming increasingly vocal on the life issue. At one point the Bishop of Sioux Falls, who was also critical of McGovern’s position, had to intervene to lower the level of vitriol on both sides of the issue. McGovern pleaded with South Dakotans not to be “one-issue voters,” but his abortion views seriously eroded his traditionally strong support among Catholics and he was defeated in 1980.

Daschle, who served as a staffer to South Dakota Senator James Abourezk during the 1970s, knew the abortion issue was becoming a costly burden to Democrats. In 1978, Abourezk opted not to run for reelection since the atmosphere was becoming so hostile. Also in 1978, liberal Democratic Senator Dick Clark was defeated in neighboring Iowa, largely because of cultural issues such as abortion. To hold his Democratic base together enough to prevail in the election and avoid McGovern’s impending fate, Daschle emphasized his Catholic credentials. Daschle sent a letter to voters saying “I am opposed to abortion. I do not support it. I have never supported it. It is an abhorrent practice. As a citizen and as a lifelong member of the Catholic faith I will do everything in my power to persuade others that abortion is wrong.” To solidify his Catholic bona fides, Daschle enclosed a letter from eight Catholic nuns saying “We know and we tell those with whom we speak of your abhorrence for abortion–and of your commitment to life.”

Daschle’s campaign tactics worked, but just barely. The morning after the election, the Argus Leader reported that Thorsness held a 42-vote advantage over Daschle (64,585-64,543), but that there still existed a sealed envelope of absentee ballots yet to be counted. “The envelope, which contains the absentee ballots from one Sioux Falls precinct, was mistakenly sealed before the votes were officially counted in the Minnehaha County Auditor’s office.” The state Canvassing Board ultimately certified Daschle as the winner by 14 votes, but a recount followed. Daschle’s campaign strategy was ultimately vindicated as he prevailed in the recount.

Daschle has of course attempted to maintain his positive image in the state, but he has abandoned the conservative positions he first used to first win his seat in Congress. In a recent interview, Daschle’s first opponent Leo Thorsness noted that Daschle “absolutely ran as a conservative Democrat” in 1978 and embraced “conservative issues and positions.” Thorsness noted, however, that Daschle is now “more liberal in what he’s saying” and has “changed his views to climb the leadership.” Instead of his vehement opposition to abortion, Daschle is now a NARAL spokesman and fundraiser. Like McGovern in 1980, Daschle has had a battle with the Bishop of Sioux Falls and has been told to stop identifying himself as a Catholic in his campaign literature. When the battle for a balanced budget amendment came to a head in the 1990s and was teetering on the brink of passage, Daschle switched his position and opposed the amendment. His constant harping about expensive campaigns and too much advertising looks entirely hypocritical since he is on pace to spend more than $15 million in his reelection bid and has been running television ads for more than a year, once again, as in 1978, burnishing his image as a nice guy who now has “clout” to get things for South Dakota.

While one may disagree with George McGovern’s liberalism, in contrast to Senator Daschle, McGovern seems ever more principled in comparison. In the run-up to his 1980 reelection contest, McGovern ignored the pleas of some advisors to tack right and stuck to the basic tenets of Great Society liberalism. In 1977, McGovern assumed the Presidency of Americans for Democratic Action, the group formed after World War II to implement the liberal agenda and which measured whether politicians were true to the liberal cause. McGovern also worked with Bob Shrum and other advisors to position himself as the liberal alternative to President Carter in the 1980 primaries (he only stepped aside when Ted Kennedy entered the race). Despite Senator Clark of Iowa being dubbed the “Senator from Africa” for his extensive foreign travel during his unsuccessful 1978 reelection bid, McGovern also took a month-long tour of Africa against the advice and pleading of his chief of staff. He also toured Cuba with Castro and met with a prominent gay rights group in California, becoming the first Senator to do so. McGovern’s chief of staff said it was becoming impossible for McGovern to persist with his “dual track” strategy of maintaining his national liberal base for another Presidential run and preserving his reelection chances in South Dakota. By sticking to his liberal principles McGovern lost his Senate seat.

Daschle has always been very cognizant of McGovern’s defeat and is trying desperately to avoid his fate. His campaign in South Dakota is based upon de-emphasizing the national party, avoiding association with liberal icons, promoting his “clout” and his ability to secure federal bacon, and promoting the image of a bipartisan compromiser. In South Dakota, Daschle also brags about how he votes with the Bush administration 80 percent of the time and how he supports the war in Iraq. Daschle is trying to use his conservative Democrat campaign model from 1978 to win in South Dakota in 2004. Pat Caddell, who understood and advocated this model, told McGovern in 1979 that his best chance of winning was to “thwart the impact of a negative campaign” by stressing McGovern’s “leadership on agricultural and energy issues and his ability to get things done in Washington that directly benefit South Dakota.” Caddell may have had the correct model, but McGovern lost anyway. Daschle could lose too if voters become aware of how different his views are from 1978. Daschle’s past image as independent and bipartisan is also increasingly implausible. Daschle serves as leader of the Democratic opposition and has turned the Senate into a “reform graveyard,” according to the Wall Street Journal, while Al Gore compares the Bush administration to the Nazis, Michael Moore attacks Bush’s “lies,” and John Kerry denounces the administration as the “most crooked, lying group I’ve ever seen.” While using Daschle’s 1978 model may have worked for Herseth, a fresh face, Daschle has become identified with the national Democratic left. In a telling gesture during the House campaign, Herseth publicly distanced herself from Daschle. It may be a sign that Daschle has difficult days ahead. 1978 was a long time ago.

Jon Lauck is a professor of history at South Dakota State University and is

blogging about the race here.

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