Person of the Week: Tom Daschle

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KENNETH LAMBERT/AP

Why We Chose Him: For ushering the Democrats into an unfamiliar position of authority, and for taking on the de facto leadership of the party, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is our Person of the Week.

You could argue that the Jeffords switch signaled the end of the Democrats’ freedom. Until the Vermont Senator jumped ship from the GOP, the Dems were the toothless underdogs, growling angrily but harmlessly at Trent Lott and his committee chairmen as they back-pedaled all over President Clinton’s legacy. Tom Daschle stood at the front of the Democrats’ stage, bathed in a dim light as he vowed almost soundlessly to fight the Republican encroachment on Democratic sacred cows like debt reduction and saving Social Security.

Sure, it was frustrating for Patrick Leahy to see Orrin Hatch sit at the head of the table. And no, it wasn’t much fun trying to cozy up to Strom Thurmond’s aides in hopes of getting an audience with the Senator. But it made for great politics — and if things didn’t get done, being the minority left a lot of time for pointing fingers at the folks in charge.

He's ready for his close-up

Now, suddenly, with a majority of one, the Democrats are the folks in charge, and South Dakota’s Tom Daschle is the man of the hour. When Jim Jeffords decided to become an independent, Daschle’s ship sailed into a new harbor, hauling behind it all the erstwhile minority leader’s political hopes — and presidential aspirations.

This is Daschle’s moment, and he knows it. He’s taken more care with his words and his wardrobe over the past week than he has in the six years since the Republicans took over the Senate. He’s fit and tan, and had multiple camera crews following his every campaign stop over the Memorial Day weekend. He seems to be enjoying himself mightily, without slipping (at least publicly) into a haze of self-congratulation.

A soft-spoken South Dakotan

Daschle, who has served in the Congress since 1978, is known as a preternaturally calm presence, whose passion for liberal hallmarks like public education and health care never overrides a sense of Midwestern civility. He can be fiery in his commitment, but almost never raises his voice. Political foes and allies alike commend him for his grasp of complex issues, and he enjoys enormous popularity in all 66 counties of his home state.

A native South Dakotan, Tom Daschle went to Washington in 1973, just out of college and a stint in the Air Force, to become an aide to South Dakota’s Senator James Abourezk. In 1978, Daschle was elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1986 he moved into the Senate. He quickly gained a reputation for humility and a willingness to compromise. He also became known to his critics as a wolfish partisan, whose strong opinions were only partially disguised by a lamb’s demeanor.

Daschle’s instinct for courtesy serves him well. In January, then-minority leader Daschle made a point of reaching out to President Bush, and he has enjoyed fairly warm relations with the White House since. That midwinter olive branch could prove invaluable to both Bush and Daschle as the two men ease into a new relationship. On the Senate floor, Daschle’s primary adversary will be minority leader Trent Lott — who enjoys a long-standing friendship with his Democratic counterpart.

Is there a silver lining for the GOP?

As Democrats learn their way around an unfamiliar seat of power, GOP party strategists are quick brush aside any suggestion of Democratic dominance. This is hardly a situation, they remind anyone who will listen, that allows any party to assume a position of true supremacy. But the unintended consequence of all this is that the the Democratic majority gives the Republicans a foil and perhaps a campagin issue in 2002. You can imagine Bush campaigning against the Do-Nothing Democratic congress.

But this is still an extremely closely-divided legislature, something Daschle himself is quick to point out. His first appearance as majority leader was a call for calm and "tempered expectations" from Democrats. Yeah, we’ve got a majority, he said. But it’s whisper-thin — and easily lost.