If you buy the

May 4, 2001 6:20 p.m.

If you buy the conventional wisdom, Tom Daschle really has his work cut
out for him. Now he’s got to coddle nettlesome moderates; he’s the
one responsible for getting something done. Daschle may get a cooler title come
Wednesday morning, the pundits are saying, but being Majority Leader in this
fractious, razor-edge Senate will be every bit as trying and thankless for him
as it was for Trent Lott.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Unless Daschle manages to screw things up royally he should have a much
easier time of it and even be able to have the best of both worlds. The new
Republican threat
to shut the Senate down unless they get their way on
judicial nominations illustrates just one of the reasons why.

Gumming up the works is the chief tool Senate minorities have to get
attention for their causes. To get their way on the now-defunct power-sharing
deal earlier this year Daschle’s Democrats threatened to grind business to a
halt if they didn’t get their way. But are Republicans really in a position to
do that? After all, they are the ones who need the trains to run on time in the
Senate – because it’s their president who’s trying to move his agenda. If the
Democrats were shutting things down they might face a backlash from
anti-gridlock voters. But if the Republicans are the ones doing the obstructing,
why should the Democrats really mind? That stops the Bush agenda in its tracks
and has the president’s own party taking the blame. That’s not a threat; it’s a
twofer. The new Republican minority enters the legislative fray with one arm
fastened firmly behind its backs because their threats of obstruction simply
aren’t credible in the way Democrats’ were.

The Democrats’ functional majority is also larger than it appears. Resisting
the president’s tax cut bill was politically difficult for at least ten Senate
Democrats. But that debate’s over. The issues likely to dominate the legislative
calendar for the rest of the year (patients’ bill of rights, prescription drug
benefits, campaign finance reform, a minimum wage increase, environment and
energy policy) cut into the Republicans’ ranks much, much more than the
Democrats’. For every John Breaux there are two Olympia Snowes. It’s hard to
think of one issue likely to come up this year that would put Daschle in the
position Bush and Lott faced on … say, campaign finance reform. And Democrats
will bring up several bills which will be hard for Republicans from the
Northeast and the West to oppose.

Could Bush could pull a Clinton: race to the center, push the Democrats to
the left, and reinvent himself as the voters’ defender of common sense
government? Maybe. But that would leave his presidency looking an awful lot like
his father’s – and almost certainly touch off a rebellion on the right. Besides,
to pull that off, you need an emboldened and ideological opposition on Capitol
Hill, like Clinton faced in 1995. And try as they might, it’s going to be very
hard for Republicans to paint Daschle and Co as some lefty equivalent of
Gingrich’s Republican Revolutionaries.

Those who believe that Daschle’s going to have a tough go of it
assume that he’ll face pressure from the public and especially from his liberal
Democrats to move significant legislation. But that’s just false. With the White
House and the House firmly in Republican plans, there’s really no chance Daschle
will be able to push through any significant legislation on his own. And,
frankly, no one expects him to. What he can do, though, is bring up piece after
piece of popular legislation which the president and his party are against and
force them to oppose (and hurt their public standing) or go along (and inflame
their constituencies). In other words, he can obstruct bringing up popular
legislation Republicans are sure to oppose.

Daschle’s goal for the next eighteen months is to thwart the president’s
program and score points for the 2002 midterms. The only question is whether he
gets tagged as an obstructionist for doing so; and the political dynamics of the
moment make that unlikely. Few positions in government give you the opportunity
to have your cake and eat it too; but Daschle’s new post comes pretty damn

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