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The Political Interest: The Next Big Election

5 minute read
Michael Kramer

For a politician, as even Bill Clinton once acknowledged, “everything is subordinate to survival.” Congressional Democrats now face a tricky calculation: how to relate to a weakened President in a way that will save their own skin. The question is especially acute in the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans know that Clinton will call on them to block the harshest expressions of Gingrichism.

The Senate Democrats will set the tone of their relationship with the President next week when they decide who should become their minority leader. The battle for the job pits two members who embody different skills and priorities. Connecticut’s Christopher Dodd is seen as a tough fighter and good debater concerned first with his and his colleagues’ survival. South Dakota’s unpretentious Tom Daschle is better liked, but many Senators, including some who support him, worry that he is too willing to push Clinton’s agenda.

Not that the President will get blind support from either one. Says Dodd: “We want Clinton to succeed but not at our expense. This wasn’t just a speed-bump election. It was sweeping, and we’re nervous about this President. The surest road to our own defeat is to be knee-jerk cheerleaders for the Administration.”

Daschle sounds a similar note: “Most of those I’ve spoken with have expressed the need to establish our own identity so we’re not seen as an extension of the White House.” But Daschle not long ago seemed more concerned with the Clintons. “I’ve spent time with ((them)) in their private quarters,” he told a South Dakota newspaper last December. “That relationship is a very thrilling part of my life in Washington, ((and)) I believe it’s going to get even stronger and more personal as the years unfold.”

Daschle’s enthusiasm for Clinton could be “a real problem for the rest of us,” says a Democratic Senator. “We don’t want a repeat of health care, where Tom loyally carried the President’s bill long after it was doomed. He was incapable of stopping to craft a compromise that could actually pass. If he carries Clinton’s water in the same way now, he could lose other fights and maybe take some of us down in the process.”

Dodd and Daschle differ on some hot issues as well. Dodd supports a moment of silence in schools; Daschle doesn’t. Dodd opposes term limits; Daschle favors them. Dodd views a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution as “the worst kind of gimmick, a prescription for chaos designed to get us off the hook by having us avoid our duty, which is to cut the deficit on our own initiative.” Daschle supports the amendment, apparently with an eye to public relations rather than policy. “We Democrats have a perception problem,” he argues. “The public thinks we’re only about taxing and spending. Supporting the amendment says with an exclamation point that we’re for fiscal discipline.”

If Congress ever gets really serious about that issue, it will have to tackle the spiraling cost of entitlement programs — and that would mean gutting the farm subsidies Daschle has championed throughout his career. “Even if we skirt entitlements generally,” explains a Democratic Senator, “at some point early on, the Republicans will seek to pay for the capital- gains tax cut they want by reducing Medicare payments. That will be the time to offer our counter: a cut in farm subsidies.” Daschle says he “knows that everything has to be on the table, including farm programs,” a stance that provokes laughter from his colleagues. “Come on,” says one of Daschle’s supporters. “Tom’s tried to protect crops no one’s ever heard of. He’s from South Dakota. He represents acreage, not people. When the time comes to swipe at farm subsidies, Tom won’t do it. He thinks he couldn’t survive at home if he did, and he’s probably right.”

Another potential headache for Democrats is a recent New York Times story reporting that Daschle “intervened” to reduce government inspections of a South Dakota airline-charter company cited for its poor safety record. One of the company’s planes crashed last February, killing three physicians working for the Federal Government. Daschle denies any wrongdoing, but several Senators fear that an ethics inquiry could prove especially embarrassing if Daschle is the Democratic leader at the time.

Public presentation is another area in which Dodd has the edge. Daschle’s a genius at stroking the Senate’s outsize egos, but the prospect of his holding his own against the new majority leader, Robert Dole, seems remote. “Bob will eat him for lunch on the talk shows,” says a Democratic Senator. “At least with Dodd against Dole you’d get a good matchup.”

Why then is Daschle still seen as the favorite for minority leader? “Because of self-interest,” says a conservative Democratic Senator who supports him. “Both Chris and Tom are too liberal for my taste, but I see Daschle as more rollable. I figure I have a better chance of influencing Tom, and many of my centrist friends think so too.”

No rule says the vote for leader must be secret, but it is. In recent history the predicted result has usually been affirmed. “But it may be different this time,” says one Senator. “A secret ballot is the ultimate weapon. Tom may have it going in, and Chris may have it going out.”

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