Politics & Policy

Tom Daschle’s Identity Politics

Now Daschle's in a difficult spot.

In 1964, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that “these, without doubt, are the years of the liberal.” Tom Daschle is a testament to this claim. In the 1960s, Daschle was a member of the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

As a Catholic, Daschle was an eager supporter of President Kennedy and later became a supporter of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar activism. While in college in 1968 he presided over a mock Democratic convention, at which he said he was “appalled at the conservatism” of delegates. They did not, he said, have the “true Democratic party spirit.” In what the college newspaper called a “last-minute maneuver” made “after a majority of the conservative element had left the convention,” the platform was “rescinded” because Daschle thought it was “too conservative” and not in accordance “with the views of either McCarthy or McGovern.” In another sign of the times, in the spring of 1968 the college Political Science Club, headed by Daschle, agreed to sponsor a visit by Minneapolis representatives of the Socialist Workers party.

Daschle also became heavily involved in liberal electoral politics. He worked for George McGovern’s Senate reelection effort in 1968 and for his presidential candidacy in 1972. He went on to serve as the chief legislative aide to one-term South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, considered one of the most liberal members of the Senate in the 1970s. Abourezk was dubbed by one commentator “the Senator from Saudi Dakota” for his support of Arab causes; he called the Israeli government “terrorist” and advocated recognition of the PLO. Daschle, according to an office memo, was given “primary responsibility for Middle East and all other foreign relations matters.”

Daschle and the Abourezk staff also supported Mo Udall, the candidate of the liberals, in the 1976 presidential primaries, and Udall took Daschle under his wing when Daschle made it to Congress.


The tide turned against liberalism in the 1970s, however, and Daschle was caught in the lurch just as he was planning his long-coveted political ascendancy. (In 2001 Tim Russert dug up a high-school quote from Daschle: “I have a dream. I’d love to be a United States senator someday.”) While George McGovern ran as an unabashed liberal and defeated more conservative Democrats to win the presidential nomination in 1972, he was trounced in the fall and even lost his home state of South Dakota. Daschle’s boss, Senator Abourezk, decided not to run for reelection in 1978, as the New Right was increasingly organized and successfully challenging liberal senators. The ultimate blow came in 1980 when Ronald Reagan triumphed and Senator McGovern, along with several other liberal senators, went down to defeat.

As Abourezk’s chief aide in the 1970s, Daschle detected the shifting political environment and, therefore, during his bid for a House seat in 1978, he ran as a conservative. While burnishing his image as a “nice” guy and a hard worker, Daschle criticized the “bloated federal bureaucracy,” promoted a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, and ran as a pro-lifer. Daschle subsequently voted for the big Reagan tax cuts in 1981, and Stuart Rothenberg noted that in his early 1980s House races Daschle took “pains not to be identified as a classic Kennedy-McGovern liberal.” He ran as “non-partisan” and as a “moderate.” In the wake of Reagan’s rout of the old-liberal Mondale in 1984, Daschle ran for the Senate in 1986 as anti-tax (pledging never to raise them), anti-abortion, and anti-gun control. In 1986, McGovern’s former chief of staff noted that “people like Jim Abourezk and George McGovern were unabashed advocates of liberalism,” but that Daschle was a “new pragmatist.” Other analysts saw him as part of a crop of “new western Democrats” who were trying to shake off the hangover of 1960s liberalism. Such sentiments prompted Al From to form the Democratic Leadership Council, the purpose of which was to counteract the establishment liberalism of the Democratic National Committee, promote “New Democrats,” and ultimately support Bill Clinton’s presidential bid in 1992.

In the early 1990s, Daschle’s leadership ambitions overrode his earlier conservative posturing. His first opponent for Congress in 1978, Leo Thorsness, recently commented that Daschle “absolutely ran as a conservative Democrat” in 1978 but subsequently “changed his views to climb the leadership.” As one of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s key aides, Daschle helped block key initiatives of the first President Bush and worked to advance President Clinton’s agenda after 1992. When the Democrats controlled Congress during the first two years of Clinton’s presidency, Daschle carried Clinton’s water, helping to pass the ban on semi-automatic rifles and the Clinton tax increases. When the Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994 and George Mitchell retired, Daschle became Senate leader and Clinton’s point man.


Despite his earlier stances on the issues and pledge to be “non-partisan,” Daschle became a party-line fighter for Democratic causes. During the 1990s Daschle led the Democratic opposition to the federal balanced-budget amendment and restrictions on partial-birth abortions. In 1999, the White House credited Daschle with holding the Senate Democrats together and preventing President Clinton’s removal from office after he was impeached by the House. Clinton’s chief of staff, John Podesta, said the White House “absolutely put our fate in the hands of Tom Daschle.” After 2000 he became the chief opponent of President Bush’s agenda, opposing tax cuts and blocking judicial appointments, tort reform, and a myriad of other bills. The Wall Street Journal has dubbed the Senate “Daschle’s Dead Zone.” Robert Novak noted that “Republicans who must deal with Daschle regard him as one of the coldest men they have met in politics.”

Despite years of leading the partisan Democratic caucus in the Senate, Daschle is now attempting another political pivot during his reelection bid. For almost a year, he has been saying he supports President Bush 80 percent of the time, and he’s running an ad of him hugging the president. Daschle left the Democratic convention in Boston before Kerry spoke and has avoided getting tangled up with Kerry. In South Dakota, Kerry has an unfavorable rating of 50 percent. Daschle’s carefully constructed image as a bipartisan and neighborly park ranger, however, is more and more difficult to pull off in an age of partisan rancor, in which he serves as the president’s chief nemesis.


Despite Daschle’s and From’s attempts to advance an image of moderation and overcome 1960s liberalism, times have changed. The age of Howard Dean and Michael Moore has arrived, rekindling what Daschle way back called the “true Democratic party spirit.” Stuart Rothenberg noted during the Democratic convention that “the 1960s, socially liberal, anti-Vietnam generation is now solidly in control of the Democratic party.” Such a turn does not sit well with the pragmatists. Ryan Lizza recently wrote in The New York Times Book Review that the Democratic party “has had to spend 30 years reorienting itself in response to the McGovern catastrophe and the rise of modern conservatism.” The New Republic criticized the popularity of Howard Dean in the Democratic ranks along with his willingness to “throw red meat to the party faithful.” TNR deemed Dean’s call for a return to strident liberalism a “self-righteous delusion” and blamed other leading Democrats for “accomodat[ing] themselves to it.”

As the party leader, Daschle has had to accommodate himself to the revival of 1960s liberalism, the nomination for president of a Massachusetts senator who was ranked the Senate’s most liberal member, and the ascendancy of a San Francisco liberal as Democratic House leader. While these trends might have pleased the Daschle of the 1960s and early 1970s, they complicate his traditional campaign strategy in South Dakota. In a recent interview, Clint Roberts, a one-time opponent of Daschle’s, said that Daschle “ran as a conservative” during their 1982 House contest. Roberts said Daschle still “plays it both ways. He talks out of both sides of his mouth. It’s worked a long time.” He adds that “Daschle is a smart politician. He does what’s necessary to win. He learned a lot from McGovern’s loss.”

But McGovern’s loss seems to have been forgotten by the national Democratic party. Which may be Daschle’s loss.

Jon Lauck is an assistant professor of history at South Dakota State University. He is blogging about the Daschle/Thune race at www.daschlevthune.com.


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