King of the Hill?

Early in December, as the Florida Supreme Court mulled over Al Gore's fate, a few dozen reporters crowded into a Senate press gallery for a conference with the newly elected Democratic leadership. After several minutes of introductions, a reporter called out a question to Thomas Daschle, the Democratic minority leader since 1994. If the Senate turned out to be 50-50, the reporter asked Daschle, "what would be your title?"

The question was intended literally; with Congress's upper chamber split down the middle, there would no longer technically be a minority to lead. But the uncertainty was as good a metaphor as any for our peculiar political moment. For if the final days of election 2000 seemed to recapitulate all the worst tropes--the armies of lawyer-partisans, the careless talk of coups--of the era coming to a close, it was then, in the Senate, that one could glimpse the era that lay ahead. Even as George W. Bush grasped the tattered mantle of victory, it became clear that Trent Lott's majority would depend, for at least two humiliating years, on the tie-breaking vote of a nonsenator, Vice President Dick Cheney. And even as Gore seemed less and less likely to occupy the White House, Daschle was oddly upbeat, talking up his party's agenda, tweaking Lott in press releases, and publicly demanding better committee ratios, staff funding, and office space for the Democratic caucus--almost as though it were his party, not the other, that had achieved unified control of the federal government for the first time in 48 years.

"When you ask people, 'In the last election, what were the issues that were of greatest importance to you?' most of them were the issues that you heard the Democrats articulate so effectively over the last several years," Daschle explains later, making the case for Democratic optimism. "We're talking about a patients' bill of rights, prescription drug benefits for seniors," he says, ticking off the Democrats' core agenda items. "The importance of campaign finance reform. Commonsense gun safety. Hate crimes legislation. All of those issues were ours--and oftentimes were articulated, as well, from the Republican side. So we have confidence that the agenda we have outlined is one that is commonly shared by the American people."

Of course, he acknowledges with a smile, "we're not quite there yet. But I think it's fair to say that most people are feeling very good about the situation."

The Daschle Style

For a party long led--and defined--by Bill Clinton, Daschle is an improbable guide through the political wilderness. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Daschle is neither a stirring orator nor a prodigious fundraiser; almost alone among the Senate's prominent Democrats, he is rarely bandied about as a White House possibility. Although liberal for his home state of South Dakota, Daschle is just left of center among his fellow Democrats. He leads no ideological or geographic bloc, isn't really closely associated with any particular wing of the party, and, for that matter, is rather less well known than some of his more boisterous, outsize colleagues. Next to a few-- Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, say, or New Jersey's Robert Torricelli--Daschle might even be considered shy.

Such modesty did not seem to be in high demand when Daschle first became minority leader. Back then, in 1994, a confident and victorious Republican Party seemed headed for predominance. With Clinton's presidency at its nadir and congressional Democrats in disarray, many Democrats in the Senate felt that their party needed more of a pugilist. The Republican landslide, after all, had not only put the Democrats firmly in the minority but had also elevated the GOP's most aggressive and conservative partisans to leadership in Congress. In the House, Newt Gingrich had ousted moderate Bob Michel to become Speaker; and in the Senate, conservative Trent Lott had beaten out Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, a protégé of establishmentarian Bob Dole, for the post of majority whip. Indeed, within two years, Dole had left the Hill to focus on his campaign for the White House, allowing Lott to become majority leader--and cementing, in many respects, the conservative hold on Congress.

But it was Trent Lott, ironically, who provided Daschle with the perfect foil. Early in his term, Lott was widely hailed as a pragmatic, "can-do conservative" (as one particularly glowing USA Today profile put it), someone who could broker compromises and restore some modicum of civility to the post-1994 Senate. Very quickly, however, he began to run his chamber much as Gingrich had run his. Like Gingrich, Lott convened "task forces": unofficial, Republican-only committees that allowed him and his deputies to circumvent the normal, fiefdom-like committee structure and keep a tight rein on legislative substance. Lott also began to restrict the Senate's historically long-winded--but tension-releasing--debates, often scheduling votes for cloture that ended debate before any had actually yet occurred.

But Lott's most dramatic innovation, by Senate standards, was shutting down the amendment process. Unlike in the House, where the majority leadership exerts iron control over which bills and amendments come to the floor, individual senators have traditionally enjoyed the broad power to offer almost any kind of amendment to legislation on the floor. Under Democratic rule, Republicans did this with alacrity--appending death-penalty-for-drug-kingpins riders to education bills, for instance, and attaching anti-abortion amendments to anything that moved. To keep the Democrats from responding in kind, Lott increasingly took advantage of a tactic known as "filling the tree": setting limits on the number of amendments allowed and filling the available slots with bogus Republican amendments, thus precluding Democrats from offering amendments of their own. Lott, says a senior Democratic aide, went "to extraordinary lengths to shut down the ability of the minority party to do things. It was unheard of in the Senate's history to play that way."

This was also a potentially disastrous scenario for Daschle. At 45 members, the Democratic caucus was so small that only a few defections would give Lott the 60 votes he needed for cloture--thus neutralizing the only effective weapon left to the minority: the filibuster. As a minority leader, moreover, Daschle had neither carrots--no choice assignments, no patronage--nor sticks with which to manage his caucus members, many of whom were accustomed to the freewheeling debating and amending of the pre-Lott days. Even under generous debate and amendment rules, the Senate's "independent contractors," in former Democratic Senate leader George Mitchell's felicitous phrase, have never had much use for party discipline. Though the Senate is a deliberative, consensus-oriented body, its rules and institutional structure favor middle-of-the-road compromisers over stringent caucus unity; in other words, Senate rules tend to encourage consensus among the entire body, not just within one party. It is thus no accident that the modern role model for powerful, iconoclastic caucus leaders, Lyndon B. Johnson, had been everything Daschle is not: compulsive, ruthless, and domineering.

Nevertheless, Daschle forged ahead with a leadership style that, in many respects, seemed as much an expression of his own political personality as anything else. Instead of concentrating decision-making power among himself, his chief aides, and like-minded lieutenants, Daschle allowed party strategy--especially on big legislation--to be crafted by the broadest possible consensus. Unlike more high-handed caucus leaders, a Democratic aide explains, Daschle would "start early, talking to members to see what their concerns [were], holding briefings and bringing in experts, so that by the time the legislation hit, there was already some common understanding among the caucus." In an effort to avoid intracaucus quarrels, Daschle and his aides also began to hold weekly briefings with the Democratic leadership and met every other week with each committee's ranking Democrat--gradually winning over, through sheer persistence, those who had their doubts. "There are three things that make him effective: patience, patience, and patience," says Harry Reid, the Democratic whip from Nevada. "That's it. In our business, people are usually good talkers and poor listeners. He's a very good listener." ("George [Mitchell] did not have his patience," says one Democrat, more pointedly. "Neither does [Robert] Byrd," the West Virginia Democrat and, like Mitchell, a former majority leader.)

How Daschle Trumps Lott

Daschle's style is in marked contrast to Lott's as well. "Daschle communicates, he builds consensus, and he leads because he's respected," says a strategist for one moderate Republican senator. "Conversely, with Senator Lott, he doesn't communicate, he surrounds himself with people from very safe states who are ideologues, and he leads because he inherited it." Indeed, it's telling that while the Democratic leadership under Daschle has drawn broadly from the caucus as a whole (ranging from John Breaux, who is perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, to California's Barbara Boxer, who is among the most liberal), the Republican leadership is dominated not just by conservative Republicans from southern and mountain states but by a clique of particularly uncompromising Lott allies: Oklahoma's Don Nickles, Idaho's Larry Craig, Texas's Phil Gramm, and Kentucky's Mitch McConnell. One consequence of the imbalance, besides leaving the Republicans with an increasingly parochial agenda, has been to isolate Lott. "Lott is notorious for making commitments about where his caucus is without doing his homework to see if they're actually there," says one Senate staffer. "And then he runs back and polls his caucus to find out that they're not really there."

This has happened several times during Lott's tenure, but the episode that perhaps best captures the advantages of Daschle's approach--and the disadvantages of Lott's--is the epic 1999 showdown over gun control. In a fine display of the Republican leadership's utter immunity to public opinion, Lott had refused to let any gun control measures come to the floor for five years, quashing even those with Republican sponsorship. But a slew of bloody school shootings, beginning in Pearl, Mississippi, in 1997, and capped by the Columbine massacre in 1999, forced the issue. Unwilling to let Democrats tack gun control amendments onto a pending securities-reform bill, Lott dusted off the previous year's massive, unfinished juvenile-justice legislation.

This itself was a shrewd move. Justice legislation, like all big, complicated bills, usually attracts dozens of amendments. Lott hoped that all the pressure built up among antigun Democrats would generate a glut of far-reaching gun control amendments that--thanks to the National Rifle Association's almost unrivaled influence over Senate business--would be easy to defeat. (NRA lobbyists frequently base their operations in the office of Senator Larry Craig, an NRA board member and the Republican Policy Committee chair.) Instead, Daschle sat down with his caucus, rounded up every senator working on the juvenile-justice bill, and convinced them to offer, in the end, four fairly modest amendments. One of them was a proposal to close the so-called gun show loophole that allows nonlicensed collectors to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting a background check and that let Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris obtain some of their weapons. Lott, meanwhile, dispatched Craig--an obvious but ridiculously impolitic choice--to craft alternative Republican amendments, despite signs that some of his own caucus members were inclined to vote with the Democrats, particularly on the gun show loophole amendment.

"Daschle was able to counsel his members to adopt a strategy of discipline on our gun amendments--to lead with those gun control amendments that he thought the general public found most reasonable," says an aide to the Democratic leadership. "Even after we got into the thick of it, and the Republicans were offering their own sham versions of our amendments, their moderates were still threatening to vote for our versions." And in the end, they did: Six GOP senators voted with all but one Democrat to close the gun show loophole, and Al Gore was left to cast a very public, very televised tie-breaking vote. Lott, complained conservative pundit Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, had "allowed the juvenile justice bill to be the vehicle for gun control--and for GOP humiliation."

But despite occasional, ineffectual protests by GOP moderates, Lott suffered few real challenges to his authority--until recently. Then two things happened. The first, and most consequential, was John McCain's presidential run. The Arizona senator is not, strictly speaking, a moderate. But his repeated breaks with Lott on an ever-increasing number of issues--particularly soft money and pork, the essential lubricants of the Lott machine--have made him a rallying point for the less doctrinaire, more reform-minded Republicans in the Senate, who are increasingly antagonistic to the Trent Lott-Tom DeLay wing of the party. The second was the GOP's five-seat loss in the 2000 election and, in particular, the replacement of four conservative Republicans (Michigan's Spencer Abraham, Missouri's John Ashcroft, Washington's Slade Gorton, and Minnesota's Rod Grams) by four moderate-to-liberal Democrats (respectively, Debbie Stabenow, Jean Carnahan, Maria Cantwell, and Mark Dayton).

Besides leaving Lott with a majority more theoretical than real, the election deprived him of his staunchest backers outside the Republican leadership. And this, in turn, has emboldened his potential rivals. New Mexico's Pete Domenici and Missouri's Kit Bond both ran against Lott allies for leadership posts in December; Domenici lost by only two votes, 26 to 24. And that same week, when Republican committee chairs met to consider Daschle's power-sharing proposals, McCain, Tennessee's Fred Thompson, and Alaska's Ted Stevens all argued for giving Democrats equal representation. Lott and his allies "don't see anything wrong with being obstructionist, which would be fine if they were in the minority, in the House, in the '80s--which is where they learned it," complains one McCain aide. "But it's not how you lead in the Senate. They don't fight on the battlefield of ideas, and if you cede that ground, you end up using obfuscation, and delay, and every kind of parliamentary maneuver. There were 58 Republicans when Lott took over," he grumbles. "Now there are 50."

And a weak 50, at that. Even before November, Lott was facing more and more defections from within his own ranks. Some of the culprits, like Vermont's Jim Jeffords, Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, are essentially northeastern Republicans in the Rockefeller mold. Others, like Ohio's Mike DeWine and Illinois's Peter Fitzgerald, are midwestern pragmatists with large suburban constituencies. The feistiest bunch, naturally, centers on McCain and includes Thompson and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel. And on many Democratic agenda items, different members of this constellation--combined with near-total unity among the Democrats--may give Daschle what is, in effect, a working majority.

New legislation to close the gun show loophole (the 1999 measure died in conference), for instance, will probably have the support of 49 Democratic senators and seven Republicans--Chafee, DeWine, Fitzgerald, Indiana's Richard Lugar, Ohio's George Voinovich, and Virginia's John Warner--plus McCain, who in October 2000 announced that he had been wrong to oppose it in 1999. Moreover, with the net addition of six pro-reform Democrats to the Senate, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation needs only one more Republican to stop the filibuster of previous years. And the Democratic-backed patients' bill of rights was so popular last year that Lott, faced with a likely defeat, was forced practically to shut down the Senate to prevent the bill's passage. Four Republicans--McCain, Fitzgerald, Chafee, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania--actually voted against a watered-down version offered as cover by Oklahoma's Don Nickles; Democratic staffers believe that if a Democratic bill had actually made it to the floor, as many as three other Republican moderates would have voted for it.

Can Daschle Trump Bush?

With a Republican in the White House, of course, there will be fewer Democratic bills on the floor, period. And this will sorely challenge Daschle's ability to hold the caucus together. There are, for instance, at least four or five nominally left-of-center Democrats in the Senate who, while they have no real ideological quibble with the party's liberal stalwarts, will readily vote with the Republicans on issues, like bankruptcy reform, that are dear to business lobbies (and campaign donors) but to which there is little organized, grass-roots opposition. More important, Bush's agenda includes plans for partial privatization of Social Security, market-based prescription drug benefits, and "opportunity scholarships" (that is, school vouchers in disguise); all these ideas have been embraced, at different times and in varying degrees, by centrist Democrats like Breaux and Joseph Lieberman and are anathema to Senate liberals.

Daschle, for his part, acknowledges that dealing with such issues will be a "significant" challenge. But there are good reasons to think it may not be as hard as in the past. For one thing, seven of the nine incoming Democratic freshmen have signed a pledge (promulgated by the liberal group Campaign for America's Future) against even partial privatization. For another, two of privatization's most forceful Democratic proponents--Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan--retired this year. It's true that Kerrey and Moynihan are likely candidates for a Bush-sponsored privatization commission, where they could "have a huge impact on the public debate," says Hans Riemer, director of the 2030 Center and an opponent of privatization. But that won't be enough. With Kerrey and Moynihan gone, and Lieberman unlikely to recant his campaign position--which toed the antiprivatization line--there are no longer any nationally prominent Democratic senators to whom Bush can turn. And there are at least two such Democrats, Daschle and Hillary Clinton, who will strongly oppose him.

Medicare reform is more troublesome, partly because Republicans have blurred their differences with the Democrats, partly because liberals are less united on the issue, and partly because health care legislation in general is so complex, technical, and ripe for legislative subterfuge. It's worth noting, though, that back in 1999, only two Democrats voted to consider the market-oriented recommendations of a Medicare commission chaired by Breaux and Republican Craig Thomas: the now-retired Kerrey and Breaux himself. The Clinton administration's abandonment of Breaux, of course, helped encourage other senators to follow suit. But that very abandonment--ratified by Gore and Lieberman during the presidential campaign--may be indicative of a broader, more fundamental political shift.

For the great paradox of the 2000 election is that the Republican Party, having captured both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1952, has perhaps less public support for a truly conservative agenda than at any time since Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide in 1964. Bush's program, though conservative and Republican in substance, is couched almost entirely in Democratic grammar. Voters resoundingly rejected bellwether school voucher initiatives in California, Michigan, and Washington State; defeated tax cut initiatives in Alaska, Colorado, and Oregon by substantial margins; and approved drug-law-liberalization measures in five states. And Al Gore, widely derided for adopting a supposedly unfashionable and outdated liberal populism, earned more votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. A good case can be made that never has such a seemingly devastating loss been, in fact, so merely nominal.

Naturally, winning would have been better still. "We no longer have a president in the White House who shares our philosophy," Daschle muses. "We don't have the leverage that having a Democratic administration can bring." There are, however, other kinds of leverage. For the moment, George W. Bush's quasi-victory has sullied the Republican Party and partisanized the Democratic Party in much the same way the impeachment battle did; Bush, desperate to regain the fig leaf of bipartisanship, now needs centrist and conservative Democrats far more than they need him. And on a more fundamental level, it has become clear that the past year's campaign realigned the Democrats along the issues--education, Social Security, prescription drugs--on which the party possesses some intrinsic unity and gave it more truly national viability than it has possessed in years.

Given all this, the proper frame of reference for the GOP's most recent victory is less 1994 than 1952--the last time the Republicans swept an election, and, not coincidentally, Daschle's preferred historical analogy for the present moment. "We've got to look at the long term, not the short term," he says. "Not to be reactive, but to be proactive--really strategize in a way that leads us to long-term success just like we did back in the 1950s. I'm sure there was a lot of anger in the early 1950s, having lost the White House and the Congress. And in less than a decade, we came back strong, and some of the most important things we've done in the last half of the last century were done in the early years of the 1960s."

Whatever his title, Daschle will not have a majority. But sometime during the next two years, he may happen upon something more useful: a mandate. ¤