- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

A rare editorial coincidence occurred earlier this month when both The Washington Post and The Washington Times highlighted their opinion pages with a reprint of the same political cartoon. In it, a woman opens her door to find the Democratic leader of the Senate scowling on her front steps, "It's Senator Daschle, dear," she tells her husband. "He wants our tax rebate check back before we do any more damage to the U.S. economy."

I hope Mr. Daschle has a good sense of humor. He needed it after the reaction to his major economic address at the National Press Club. Mr. Daschle fumbled the Democrats' economic message so badly that members of his own senatorial flock didn't just disagree with his economic view of the world, but openly criticized it. "Maybe it's at a level my brain can't reach," Georgia Democrat Zell Miller opined.

Pundits generally panned Mr. Daschle's economic arguments, and it's no wonder. Most of them made about as much sense as asking Arthur Andersen to balance your checkbook. Unfortunately for Mr. Daschle, that was the high point of his week.

On Tuesday, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, like a pair of fraternity brothers on a road trip, touted the signing of the bipartisan education reform bill before adoring crowds from Ohio to New Hampshire.

Facing mounting charges of "obstructionism," the last thing Mr. Daschle needed was Mr. Kennedy all over the network news lavishly praising Mr. Bush's commitment to education and bipartisanship. "What a difference it has made this year, with your leadership," Mr. Kennedy told the president. Mr. Bush graciously reciprocated, making Mr. Daschle's recent snipes at the president seem an unwelcome throwback to a partisan era that most Americans want to forget.

The end of the week wasn't any better. The Democrats' rush to use the Enron scandal to tarnish the Bush administration's squeakyclean image hit a speed bump as media reports revealed extensive Democrat involvement with the company over the past ten years, including Enron's more than $1 million dollars in political contributions to Democrats, including Mr. Daschle himself.

Finally, Mr. Bush, emboldened by his continuing popularity and frustrated by Mr. Daschle's failure to speed the pace of administration nominations, thumbed his nose at the majority leader and Senate Democrats by naming the two most egregious examples of Democrat obstructionism Otto Reich and Eugene Scalia to recess appointments.

But Mr. Daschle's troubles last week reflect much more than just a bad day or two or even three. They didn't stem from political miscalculation or ineptitude. To the contrary. Tom Daschle is a smart, articulate, hard-nosed but likeable politician. It's time to admit, however, what he is not, and that is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Mr. Daschle holds the title but not the power to act the part because he lacks an ideological majority that is essential to govern.

This is the reality that faces Mr. Daschle as the Senate reconvenes for one of the most contentious sessions in its history. But unlike the past eight months, this majority leader without a majority will find his ability to shape and control a winning partisan agenda increasingly compromised by both election-year politics and his own presidential ambitions.

To gain his party's nomination, Mr. Daschle must ensure that the Democrats retain control of the Senate. To lose the Senate would be fatal to his presidential hopes, and that means catering to the demands of moderate Democrats, especially those up for re-election this year. These moderates often provide the margin of victory in the Senate, and that's the rub. Most voted for the Republican tax cuts. Most favor opening ANWR to drilling. Many would have voted for the Reich/Scalia nominations and the Republicans' economic stimulus package.

So why doesn't Mr. Daschle just accommodate these moderates and take credit for passing a bipartisan legislative agenda? That's what President Clinton did so successfully. But unlike Mr. Clinton, Mr. Daschle still has a presidential nomination to win. To do that he must appease left-leaning activist Democrats across the country who control his party's nominating process.

These Democrats find tax cuts abhorrent, drilling in ANWR sacrilege and tax incentives for investment nearly criminal. They would rather Mr. Daschle do nothing than bring these issues to the Senate floor where moderate members of their own party would likely provide the winning margin.

And that is Mr. Daschle's dilemma. Doing nothing his pattern to date leaves him open to complaints of obstructionism. Doing something risks the defection of moderate Democrats or the wrath of liberal Democratic activists.

Until recently, Mr. Daschle's solution to his dilemma has been to retreat to the constitutional tool traditionally used by the minority the threat of a filibuster but with a twist. Mr. Daschle is too smart to actually allow Democratic filibusters on contentious issues like ANWR, for example, that would provide fodder for Republicans and great footage for the evening news.

Instead, he tells us how "disappointed" he is at the Senate's current partisan impasse that compels him to halt action on everything from administration nominees to an economic stimulus package. In other words, the "do nothing" approach.

But as the "obstructionist" tag began to stick, a desperate Mr. Daschle apparently decided to change tactics by testing the "do something" alternative sort of. So the majority leader without a majority offered up an economic plan and roundly criticized the Bush tax cuts, thereby alienating 12 of his own Democrats who supported the cuts.

Given the reaction of Mr. Miller and other moderates, he may find himself the real minority leader sooner rather than later, if he stays on a path to his own nomination rather than the road to their re-election.

Richard N. Bond is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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