The 107th Congress faced a time like no other in the life of the nation: the first presidential election to be decided by the United States Supreme Court, the 50-50 Senate, the horror of September 11, the anthrax attacks on media and the government, the war on terrorism, corporate scandals that shook the economy, the inexorable move toward war with Iraq, and other dramatic events, all leading up to the historic midterm elections of 2002. Tom Daschle, the Majority Leader of the historic 107th Senate, presents an insider’s account of the workings of the U.S. government during two of the most tumultuous years in the nation’s history. Here's an excerpt of “Like No Other Time”:
SETTING THE STAGE
It is hard to overstate the disappointment and, yes, the despair that we—my Democratic colleagues and I—felt the morning after that 2002 election. Never mind the fact that of the seventy-seven million ballots cast across the nation that Tuesday, a scant forty-one thousand (nineteen thousand in New Hampshire and twenty-two thousand in Missouri)—less than 6/100 of 1 percent of the entire vote—determined the difference between our party retaining control of the Senate and the Republicans seizing it. Perception, as they say, is reality, and the perception of this defeat, reflected in newspaper and magazine headlines across the country in the days that followed, was of an unmitigated disaster. The headlines arrayed on that week’s newsstands echoed the theme:
IT’S HALLELUJAH TIME IN THE WHITE HOUSE
FOR BUSH AND GOP: A MANDATE
A NEW LEADER IS NEEDED
The term “shellacked” was used more than once in these reports, and despite the narrowness of the results, that’s just how we felt. I knew when I went to bed that election night that I’d awake to a barrage of blame and recrimination that was going to continue for some time, both from outsiders and, more consequentially, from my colleagues within the Democratic Party. And understandably so. I knew we were in for a period of soul-searching and self-flagellation the likes of which few of us had ever experienced. I had doubts and questions myself. As the saying goes, “Success has a thousand parents; failure is an orphan.” The morning after that election, I felt pretty alone.
How had this happened? That question kicked at us all in the wake of this defeat. Everyone, of course—the press, the pundits on radio and television, my colleagues, our opponents-had their own answers and were eager to share them:
We Democrats “had no message.” We “ran without new ideas.” This was a “Seinfeld election”—it was about nothing.
We offered “no difference between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ ” We had become victims of “centrist caution.” In the name of political expediency, we had “compromised our party’s identity” and become nothing more than “Republican Lite.”
We had “pandered to the Republicans.” We had “surrendered on issues of defense and foreign policy.” We had “attacked the President’s economic policies but offered no real alternative.”
Our campaigns had been marked by “caution, vagueness, niche issues, and sloganeering.”
We had lost our “soul.”
We were “leaderless.”
I knew that we needed not to panic. But neither could we deny that the consequences of this defeat, as narrow as it might have been, were disastrous, not just for the Democratic Party, but for the American people in terms of where they might now be led. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt shared my deep frustration and was shaken by what had transpired.
As Congress returned to Washington in December following the elections, Dick came to visit my personal office in the Hart Building, and we had a good long talk. First, we met with staff to discuss the aftermath of the election and the legislative schedule for the final weeks of the 107th Congress, that period of time traditionally known as a “lame duck” session. Then, at the end of the meeting, Dick asked if staff could be excused so that he and I could talk privately. As we sat alone, we talked again about our disappointment with the election and our need to regroup and move forward. Dick then said that he had come to the conclusion that for him the way to move forward was to move on—and, hopefully, up. He told me he intended to give up his House leadership role and run for president.
I knew how frustrated Dick was with the way things had gone in the House, and I felt terrible for him. He was a terrific partner during our years guiding the Democratic leadership in Congress. Our offices occasionally acted as rivals, but each legislative challenge and each passing year cemented the friendship that Dick and I had built. He worked incredibly hard yet never got the gratitude and appreciation he deserved, largely because he had to lead the House Democrats from under the heavy thumb of the House Republicans during his entire time as leader. I hope history will recognize Dick’s service more than many of his colleagues in Washington did.
As for seeking the presidency, I told him that I, too, was weighing that same decision. If the political challenge we faced as Democrats was to truly help the people who we felt were being left out and left behind by this administration, the question was which would be the more effective role... that of caucus leader or presidential candidate. I told him that I would make my decision within the next few weeks.
We talked for a few more minutes, and then there was a long pause, nothing but silence as we sat across from each other in the quiet confines of my office, with its high ceilings and Native American art, the winter sun shining through the tall windows. For the first time, we were confronting the possibility that we could soon find ourselves adversaries—a prospect neither of us would relish.
Dick broke the silence. “Whatever you decide,” he said, “you will always be my friend.”
I looked back at him and replied, “We’ve been through a lot together. You’ll always be my friend, too.”
We gave each other a big hug. Then he turned without another word and left the room.
I knew that I had to make my own decision soon—certainly within the following few weeks. And losing the majority complicated things significantly. Had we strengthened, or even just held on to, the majority, I would have felt more confident about turning over the reins of responsibility. But now I had to make the decision about running for president with a caucus in the same minority position in which I found it when I became leader in 1994.
For the first week or two after the election, Republicans and the conservative press pointed gleefully to the results as evidence of my failure as a leader. More editorials than I can count were written that blamed my “obstructionist” tactics for our defeat. Whatever path my future would take, I felt strongly that as a party we needed to bounce back quickly. Yet while my mind was resolved about what had to be done, my body language apparently exposed a deeper disappointment than I realized—at least according to some of my friends and staff.
Some said it was even reflected occasionally in my wardrobe. That fact provided a moment of comic relief in one of the first press conferences I held after I returned to Washington. In the months leading up to the election, Linda and I had become grandparents—twice. There really is no experience in life quite as miraculous and gratifying as becoming a grandparent. The joy of seeing your children so happy, of watching a new person enter the world as an extension of your flesh and blood, is truly one of the great blessings of life. And we were blessed not once, but twice in the same year. On this particular December morning, with the press conference scheduled for that day, Linda and I went to an early morning family photo session at a local studio to show off the two new grandbabies. The photographer told me to wear contrasting colors for the shoot, so I brought a black shirt and a white one. While taking the pictures, our three-week-old granddaughter, Ava, relieved herself on my white shirt. Just before the press conference, I changed into the black—dark mourning black. As I entered the room, the first question from one of the reporters seated around the conference table was, “What are you trying to tell us with that shirt?” That got a good laugh.
Subconsciously or not, that shirt did reflect my mood, so you can imagine the gratitude I felt when Robert Byrd, a former Democratic leader himself, who had served as both minority and majority leader during his more than half a century in Congress, stood up in our first caucus meeting after the election and asked unanimous consent that I be reelected leader by acclamation. The response was a standing ovation. Harry Reid, our assistant Democratic leader, then asked, “What about me?” Everyone laughed. I said that was the shortest nominating speech on record. Harry was then reelected the same way, as was Barbara Mikulski, our caucus secretary, and then our entire leadership team.
Gratifying as that display of support was, it did not alter the fact that within our caucus a heated debate had begun that was echoed by pundits across the nation—namely, whether it was time for our Democratic Party to move back to the “Left,” to reclaim the liberal roots from which we had steadily drifted away over the course of the past three decades, or whether we needed to move even more toward the “center” to break the partisan gridlock in Washington that so much of the American public rightfully detests.
On the one side—the liberal, progressive side-were voices urging that it was time to “stop accommodating,” to “take a stand,” to “reclaim our identity,” to become “an opposition party worthy of the name.” Dick Durbin, one of the most articulate members of our caucus, argued that we needed to define ourselves more effectively and forcefully with a stronger message and more aggressive legislative strategy. Paul Wellstone’s name and the memory of his firebrand liberalism were intoned more than once in these discussions.
On the other side—the moderate side—were the voices warning that we must “face reality,” that with so many tightly contested elections in a contemporary political landscape as evenly divided as we now face in America, where victory or defeat depends on a tiny percentage of “swing” voters, we can’t afford to alienate those precious few voters by taking “extreme” positions. Proponents of this argument-Evan Bayh, Tom Carper, Ben Nelson—urged that we needed to try even harder to compete with the administration for the swing voters by striving more effectively for bipartisan compromise with the administration.
I had my own thoughts even then about this argument. But it wasn’t time for me to speak—not yet. In these first meetings after the election, my job was to listen to what those around me had to say. And to think hard about how we had come to this critical juncture. This meant analyzing, scrutinizing, and trying hard to understand the tumultuous events of the preceding two years. Beyond that, it meant examining the path that our national politics has traveled over the course of the past thirty years, since the time I first entered politics in 1972—a year that many, including me, consider a watershed in modern American politics, the year the Democratic Party began seeking a new identity.
It was this search for identity that has been the subject of so much internal debate within our party these past three decades. It has had a profound effect on our decisions on both leadership and issues. That has, in turn, affected my own leadership role and the issues we have faced. And it all began in 1972.
That was the year my dear friend George McGovern ran for president. For the Democratic Party, that election was a painful loss. An outspoken champion of liberalism and progressive politics, George was defeated by Richard Nixon in a Republican landslide that was considered by some to be a definitive verdict against the aggressive 1960s liberalism of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
I worked as one of George’s volunteers on that campaign—my first involvement in national politics. At the time, I was an Air Force intelligence officer stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. By night, I volunteered to help run the Omaha office of the McGovern campaign. It was a combination that gave me a window into two worlds.
As that election unfolded, I could see what was happening. We could all see. The sense of excitement, hope, and optimism that had swept up so many of us in the wave of social movements and their legislative manifestations that washed over America in the early to mid-1960s-the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, Medicaid, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Peace Corps, and so many more—had, by the end of that decade, given way to the anguish and confusion of the war in Vietnam, chaos on college campuses, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, race riots in our cities, the lunacy of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
The center, as the poem by W. B. Yeats puts it, was not holding. Anyone who was not there at that time in America and did not experience this social tumult directly can’t appreciate how very real it all was, how alarmingly close our society seemed to be to coming apart at the seams, especially to conservatives, who blamed the social chaos on the Democrats, the liberals, and the anarchic energy unleashed by all those federally supported movements.
So Nixon and an emerging core of right-wing Republicans stepped in to stop the bleeding. “Law and order” was their battle cry, and a frightened, roiling nation responded. They labeled the Democrats as the party of high taxes and anti-Americanism, and the label stuck. “Never again,” these conservatives said, drawing a line in the sand to separate themselves from the forces that had, in their view, nearly brought down our society. This was a historical moment. Because from that point forward, “liberal” became a dirty word, one even most Democrats came to avoid.
It hadn’t, of course, always been so. The Roosevelts—both Theodore and Franklin—had drawn their own lines in the sand back in the 1920s and 1930s, aggressively creating government programs and institutions to respond in an unprecedented way to the needs of the American people. In the process, they established “liberalism” as a near religion. Teddy Roosevelt—a Republican—did it in the name of our land, creating the network of national parks that today still protects our most treasured public lands. FDR, of course, stepped in with the New Deal, the sweeping range of federal programs that helped lift America out of the depths of the Great Depression and carried us through World War II and beyond. In a 1941 speech, Franklin Roosevelt offered as succinct a definition of the difference between liberals and conservatives as I’ve ever seen—a definition that is as accurate today as it was at that time.
Liberals, he said, believe that “as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.”
Conservatives, he continued, believe that “there is no necessity for the government to step in.”
From FDR in the 1930s straight through to LBJ in the 1960s—with the brief exception of the somnolent Eisenhower administration—liberalism guided the way in Washington and “conservative” was the term that most politicians, even Republicans, avoided. Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 campaign for the presidency, with the civil rights movement cresting in the South and with the Vietnam War protest movement just around the corner, became the first Republican in modern times to stand on a national stage and proudly wave the conservative label with defiance. Goldwater didn’t win, but he inspired a new generation of Republican warriors to carry that banner forward, including a young Ronald Reagan, who brought down the house at the 1964 Republican convention with his fiery nominating speech for Goldwater—the same basic speech, more or less, on which Reagan built his career for the next twenty years.
Government, Reagan liked to say, is the problem, not the solution. That, even more precisely than FDR’s definition, sums up the difference between the Republican and Democratic ideologies that have evolved in the past thirty years, the schism that separates two divergent views in American politics.
Excerpted from Like No Other Time by Senator Tom Daschle, with Michael D’Orso Copyright © 2003 by Senator Tom Daschle, with Michael D’Orso. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.