- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2002

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the Democratic Party's highest elected leader, is having a hard time finding a campaign issue with any political traction.
No matter what the South Dakota lawmaker has tried over the past several months, nothing seems to stick. President Bush's polls continue to hover in the high 70s or low 80s. Republican congressional polls show that they still have a slight generic lead over the Democrats at this point in the election cycle. Democrats are complaining that their party's base is becoming frustrated and fractured.
"He's a Democrat in search of a holy grail. He's struggling to find what the political weakness of this president is. He's searching high and he's searching low and so far he's come up empty-handed," said Marshall Wittmann, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
"There's immense frustration in Democratic ranks. Their view is that if you take the war on terrorism out of the picture, this should be their moment," Mr. Wittman said.
It is not for lack of trying. Mr. Daschle, who learned the art of political combat from his Democratic mentor, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, has blocked or delayed the administration's bills on trade, energy, terrorism insurance and economic stimulus.
Mr. Daschle blocked action on Mr. Bush's stimulus package last month while criticizing the president's tax cuts, which he said were "making the economy worse." But the economic numbers over the ensuing weeks have improved. Jobs, manufacturing, housing sales and overall economic growth are all up, robbing Democrats of the biggest issue they hoped to have in the fall.
Mr. Daschle has blamed the administration for the disappearing surpluses and a projected $100 billion deficit this year, charging that the deficit would boost interest rates, weaken the economy and rob Social Security of its trust fund revenues.
But those issues do not seem to be working either. Independent polls suggest that the voters understand that the costs of the war and homeland defense and the economic slump are the big reasons for the surplus' decline. Voters, often by sizeable margins, say they trust Mr. Bush and the Republicans more than the Democrats on the economy, national security, fiscal responsibility and education.
Then Mr. Daschle tried to turn the Enron collapse into a political scandal, hoping that he could link Enron's campaign contributions to Mr. Bush over the years into a quid pro quo on energy policy. But thus far the investigations and hearings have shown that not only did the administration refuse to lift a finger to save Enron, but that Enron also had a deeper relationship with the Clinton administration which helped the energy company finance a number of its overseas business deals and gave heavily to Democratic lawmakers.
Now Mr. Daschle, in a move that some strategists view as a high-risk strategy, is questioning Mr. Bush's success in the war on terrorism by saying that it "will have failed" if Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorist leaders are not captured.
He made further criticisms on yesterday's political talk shows, saying that Congress should not approve money for a war on terrorism that is broadening beyond Afghanistan without consultation on the war's scope and purpose.
Last week in an interview with South Dakota's Sioux Falls Argus Leader newspaper, Mr. Daschle suggested that the country did not have enough money for homeland defense because of "that crazy tax cut."
His criticism of Mr. Bush on the war surprised strategists who think it is born of his inability to find any issue that worked for the Democrats against the administration.
"To attack Bush at a time of war, when he has this immense popularity, smacks of a kind of desperation. You don't step on Superman's cape, and that is exactly what Daschle is trying to do," Mr. Wittmann said.
Growing malaise among the Democratic Party's base, as well as Mr. Bush's inroads into some of its key constituencies may explain why Mr. Daschle has decided to make the war a political issue, strategists said last week.
The cover story in the March issue of the Washington Monthly asks, "Why Can't the Democrats Get Tough?" The article calls on Democrats "to remember how to fight like Democrats."
"If they're serious about beating back Bush, Democrats need to start pulling on all the levers of power available to them, and to stop shrinking away from sounding partisan when the cause is just," the magazine said.
Mr. Daschle has said he may challenge Mr. Bush for the presidency in 2004, and the prospect has led to Republican criticisms that his every action in the Senate is politically motivated to enhance his future candidacy.
Mr. Daschle said that he will not make any decision about running until after the 2002 elections, but he would have to give up his Senate seat if he does. The state legislature passed legislation that prevents him from running simultaneously for president and the Senate, and Republican Gov. William J. Janklow signed the bill last week.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide