Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) has little taste for political postmortems -- particularly his own -- as he prepares to depart from the Senate this week after a quarter-century in politics.
He has spent his days presiding over the boxing of his voluminous papers; going to the movies and dinner with his wife, Linda; helping staff members find jobs; and spending a long weekend in New York celebrating friend Tom Brokaw's retirement as NBC's anchor. Old friends such as former senators Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) have stopped by or called the Democratic leader's office to commiserate and offer career advice.
Daschle, 57, led the Senate Democrats through a tumultuous decade of a government shutdown, the impeachment of a president, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and an anthrax assault on his Senate staff. Now he says he is focused on the future and a possible new career with a Washington law firm, investment house or public policy think tank. He has pretty much ruled out lobbying.
Still, there is the matter of the Republicans' three-year campaign to portray Daschle as unpatriotic and an obstructionist; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's breach of protocol by campaigning against Daschle in South Dakota on May 22; Daschle's devastating loss to Republican John Thune Nov. 2 in one of the most costly and negative campaigns in the state's history; and the Republicans' virtual boycott of Daschle's farewell address on the Senate floor last month.
In that speech, Daschle betrayed no sign of bitterness and instead urged the two parties to strive to find "common ground."
Privately, some supporters are bitter that Thune and the Republicans were successful in negatively defining Daschle's record and leadership style -- denying him a fourth term. "Some people think his loss was partially because he didn't go negative early enough," one former aide said. "He welcomed Frist into South Dakota rather than attacking him. That's who he is, and it has served him well until now."
But during an interview Friday in his stately office at the Capitol overlooking the Mall, Daschle declined to discuss the campaign or his feelings about Frist, dismissing such an exercise as "corrosive and so totally unproductive."
"I concluded it really isn't helpful -- and since I can't change the results, I really can't see the value in reliving or restrategizing decisions we made along the way in the campaign," he said. "Linda and I made a pact after the election not to look back."
During the nearly one-hour session in which he reviewed his career, Daschle never mentioned Frist, the surgeon-turned-politician who is considering a bid for the presidency, while lavishing praise on former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who ruled a sorely divided Senate during numerous crises. Although Lott's career as a Senate leader was cut short in late 2002 by his controversial remarks about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and a bygone era of segregation, Daschle said Lott deserves "a lot of credit" for steering the Senate through the Sept. 11 aftermath and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Daschle, a one-time Senate aide and House member, was first elected to the Senate in 1986. As minority leader and then majority leader, he frequently clashed with President Bush over domestic policy, judicial nominations, foreign policy and the war in Iraq. His denunciation of Bush's diplomatic failures shortly before the United States invaded Iraq and his opposition to the administration's economic policies earned him the enmity of conservatives.
"I don't look back with any regret or any apology," he said. "I think we did what we had to do. . . . I believe candor is the best policy, and I tried to be candid. Looking back . . . I think I was right."
But his candor in taking on the administration and the GOP-controlled House likely cost him support in South Dakota, a predominantly Republican state that gradually became disenchanted with its moderate-to-liberal senior senator. In the end, the conflict between Daschle's duties as the leader of a largely liberal Democratic caucus and his representation of a red state proved irreconcilable, despite his efforts to keep in touch with voters through annual car tours of the state and his advocacy of South Dakota's ethanol and recreation industries.
"One of the biggest ironies of the election result is that nobody fought harder for his state, thought more about the people of the state or spent more time in his state than Tom Daschle, despite the burdens of national leadership," said Joel Johnson, a lobbyist and former aide to Daschle and Clinton. "I think it's something South Dakotans are going to come to regret."
Despite the GOP's strong showing last month, Daschle said Democrats should not compromise principles or move to the right -- but instead should stick to their "progressive" principles. He added that the country is narrowly divided, and "it wouldn't take much for the progressive movement in this country to be the majority movement again."