In a new poll, Senator Tom Daschle has fallen behind former congressman John Thune in his reelection bid. Daschle’s 14 month-long advertising blitz has not moved his numbers, the senator’s unwillingness to debate has made him look weak, and his constant cries of “negative attack!” every time he is criticized has not given him the victim status and sympathy he was hoping for. Another major factor also explains Daschle’s vulnerability: the fundamental incoherence of his positions.
While serving as the chief nemesis of President Bush for three years, Daschle is currently running ads in South Dakota depicting him in a warm embrace with Bush. Despite turning the U.S. Senate into a killing ground for Bush’s legislation and his party’s disdain for the President, Daschle depicts the two as chums. While Daschle is running in a pro-Bush Red State and finds it necessary to ‘embrace’ the President, few have missed his hugging hypocrisy.
Daschle’s ability to be both nemesis and chum at the same time is well-practiced. For example, when he first ran for Congress, he constantly made the case for a balanced-budget amendment. When the amendment was on the brink of passage in the 1990s, he voted no. Daschle’s affinity for constitutional amendments is strong, however. He’s co-sponsored 20 such amendments in the last decade to address such weighty issues as indexing Congressional pay increases. But during the Federal Marriage Amendment debate this summer, during which Daschle said he “opposed gay marriage,” he voted against the FMA based on his disdain for amending the “sacred document” because it needed to be “insulated” from change.
During his first election, 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 now sends fundraising letters for NARAL. When the Bishop of Sioux Falls says Daschle should stop calling himself Catholic and that Catholics should not vote for pro-choice pols, Daschle says his relationship to the church is a private matter, despite his earlier invocation of his Catholicism.
While Daschle opposed the federal ban on partial-birth abortion for many years, with an election year approaching in 2003 he changed his stance and voted for it. He said “it was time to move on.” To an election year, one surmises. During the vote on the Laci Peterson-inspired Unborn Victims of Violence bill, Daschle voted for Senator Feinstein’s and Planned Parenthood’s amendment to strip the bill of its essential feature extending murder statutes to include the killing of a fetus (the amendment barely failed 49-50). When that failed, he voted for the bill supported by the National Right to Life Committee recognizing the killing of a fetus as a murder. Daschle said he “felt they both had merit,” even though the bills were completely contradictory.
Prior to the Senate vote on going to war with Iraq, Daschle said WMD was “the only threat that would justify the use of the United States military force against Iraq.” He said in South Dakota when campaigning this year, however, that even knowing what he knows now about WMD, he would still have voted for war. After the war vote in the fall of 2002, The New Republic also noted that Daschle’s position was indecipherable: “Daschle criticized the war endlessly, then voted for it on the flimsiest of pretexts, then went back to criticizing it.” The magazine said Daschle’s “support for the war with Iraq [was] synonymous with cynical calculation and ideological me-tooism.”
Earlier this year, Daschle supported Senator Feinstein’s gun-control amendments to the gun-manufacturer liability bill, which then died. In his last competitive Senate race, Daschle said “no representative from our state has ever supported restrictive Federal gun control laws written in Washington and there is a very good reason why. What makes sense in New York is crazy in South Dakota.” In 1990, Daschle said “I am against gun control, period.”
Daschle has filibustered dozens of judges that President Bush has nominated to the federal bench and prevented them from even receiving an up-or-down Senate vote. During the Clinton years, however, Daschle said, “I find it simply baffling that a Senator would vote against even voting on a judicial nomination.” Daschle furiously opposed Bush’s recess appointments of judges earlier this year, but during the Clinton years Daschle said “that’s the only way [the president] can get the nominations through” because the other side was “blocking just about everyone.” Daschle said of Clinton’s recess appointments: “I don’t blame the president for being frustrated and having lost patience. . . . The president acted, and I’m glad he did.”
When campaigning in South Dakota earlier this year, Daschle said that the cost of medical-malpractice insurance was a major problem. Yet the next week he blocked yet another tort reform bill in the Senate. In South Dakota this year, Daschle also calls for giving the federal government the power to negotiate with companies for lower drug prices, the absence of which in the President’s prescription-drug bill Daschle called “indefensible.” In 2000, however, Daschle introduced major legislation banning the government-negotiation of drug prices and used the “noninterference” provision as a major selling point.
When discussing the ethanol bill in South Dakota in May 2003, Daschle said he was “going to work as hard as I can and use every resource at my disposal to get it into law as soon as possible.” In November, Daschle did not even try to get the two votes needed to get the bill past a Democratic filibuster. The night before the vote, he was out signing copies of his book in Virginia.
In South Dakota this election season, Daschle constantly bashes “outside groups” and 527s for running ads critical of him. After the passage of campaign-finance reform, however, Daschle’s allies immediately set up 527s. In his reelection bid Daschle has raised more money than any candidate in the country and will spend almost $20 million dollars trying to save his seat. In the 1980s, however, Daschle constantly railed against expensive campaigns and said that “big money [was] going to be the downfall of the American political system.” Daschle now raises his money in Hollywood and the Hamptons, which the New York Times has dubbed “The Democrats’ ATM.” While Daschle constantly bashes the “special interests,” he is gobbling up triple the PAC money as his opponent, and his wife, son, and daughter-in-law are or have been lobbyists themselves.
In South Dakota, Daschle bashes imports and free-trade agreements, yet he voted for both the WTO and NAFTA. In 1996 during the Clinton years when the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, Daschle said the “economy is doing extraordinarily well.” In his recent book, published in the midst of 5.6 percent unemployment during the Bush administration, Daschle says the Bush economy is “failing,” “floundering,” and “plunging.” Unemployment is now 5.4% yet Daschle’s criticism of the Bush economy continues.
Daschle is a far-cry from South Dakota’s other famous senator, George McGovern, who was a confessed and proud liberal and took his lumps for maintaining coherent political stances. Daschle, on the other hand, is a cynic, a practitioner of Clintonian cooptation, triangulation, and obfuscation. In 1991 Daschle told the Washington Post that the “first thing that comes to my mind in a vote is: Can it [the issue] pass the 30-second test, how successful will it be in applying it to a 30-second ad?” The cynicism and being on both sides of every issue is catching up to him.
–Jon Lauck is an assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University. He is blogging about the <a href=Daschle v. Thune race here.