Tom Daschle has new shirts -- nifty ones with wide, spread collars that come up a little higher on the neck than your standard-issue senatorial white shirts. They look like fancy English shirts, many striped or checked in blue, most with French cuffs.
This is Tom Daschle of Aberdeen, South Dakota. What's the story on the shirts?
"My family used to complain to me that my shirts were too ragged, not what you'd expect for the Democratic leader [of the Senate]," the newly most-influential man on Capitol Hill explains. "So for my birthday and Christmas last year they bought me some of those shirts and expected me to wear them." Are they English, or what? "Nordstrom's, places like that."
Send more shirts. At Christmastime, Daschle was the Democratic leader in a split Senate still controlled by Republicans, if only thanks to the vote of Vice President Cheney. As of this morning, Daschle is the majority leader, thanks to the vote of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt. -- a novel designation). Now Daschle is the leading Democrat in town and, arguably, in the United States. The shirts, and the fellow in them, are about to get a lot more visible.
What will America see? An unusual Washington player. He still spends two months a year in South Dakota, but Tom Daschle has been playing the Washington game for nearly three decades. His record suggests that he has taken to heart the old-fashioned saying that there's no limit to what you can do in this town if you don't care who gets credit for it.
So even now, as he assumes the Senate majority leadership, Daschle's name evokes no memorable anecdotes or images, recalls no soaring oratory or cloakroom confrontations. There's no Daschle doctrine, no legislative monument that bears his name, no public notoriety at all, really. He's from another era -- a politician without a compulsion to be seen, quoted, praised. And yet, if you talk to the people who have worked with him over those three decades, you hear quite amazing descriptions:
"He's the best I've seen," says Bennett Johnston, the former Democratic senator from Louisiana. "He works as hard as any senator I've ever seen," says Bob Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who was Daschle's legal counselor in the impeachment trial of 1999. "Of all the many people I've worked for in politics," says Ron Klain, a principal aide to Bill Clinton and Al Gore after leaving Daschle's staff, "he is by far the most easygoing." "If you look up 'patience' in the dictionary," says Michael Meehan, Daschle's political director for four years and now his man at the Democratic National Committee, "there's a picture of Tom Daschle."
Even Republicans find it difficult to speak harshly of Daschle. "I served with Tom in the House Agriculture Committee," says Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), "and I've served with him in the Senate for a long time, and I can't find anything to say about him that's unpleasant."
Steve Bell, for most of two decades the senior aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), sounds like a critic when first discussing Daschle: "He's very tough, very partisan, very clever. He is implacably after the possession of power." Then Bell's tone changes: "In other words, he's a professional. . . . He's a guy you can deal with." Whom does he remind Bell of? "He reminds me very much of [former Republican leader Howard] Baker," Bell replies. Baker is Bell's personal political hero. He's also -- with Mike Mansfield, the Senate Democratic leader from 1961 to 1977 -- one of the men Daschle cites as model majority leaders.
Daschle has no visible enemies. This is unusual, to say the least. There are senators who detest Trent Lott, the outgoing majority leader -- both Democrats and Republicans. George Mitchell of Maine, Daschle's predecessor as Democratic leader and another rather soft-spoken senator from a small state, was the object of fierce Republican hostility. Robert S. Byrd, Mitchell's predecessor, was a remote, self-important majority leader who, far from being difficult to dislike, was hard to like.
These attributes make Daschle a throwback, a man from the pre-poisonous age of American politics. Fierce partisanship has infected Capitol Hill for a generation; animus and ill will are now routine. But Mansfield and Baker didn't engage in aggressive partisan hostility -- indeed, his friends have said for years that partisanship, not least in his own party, is what drove Baker to leave the Senate when he was still a relatively young man of 59. So Daschle is sending a signal when he names as his models those lions of a very different Senate.
The signal is not about ignoring partisan differences. Daschle is a moderately liberal Democrat, always has been, and isn't shy about promoting his views on divisive issues. The signal is more about style. Daschle's is reassurance personified.
This was on display yesterday in the Capitol corridor where Daschle met the press after the regular Democratic caucus lunch, a weekly ritual spiced yesterday by the aura of new power. His body language is reassuring: a slim, smallish man (5-foot-8) with his hands crossed in front of him, fingers entwined, exuding calm. His voice is mellifluous, a sort of aural cough drop. And his words are reassuring. Here's what he said yesterday on the subject of bipartisanship: "I have to prove myself to our Republican colleagues. I hope I can do so." He didn't mention the challenges that are certain to come from his own unruly Democrats.
Daschle gets along with people even as he is doing them in. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut ran against Daschle for minority leader, losing by just one vote in 1994, and is now one of his leading cheerleaders. "Tom Daschle is just a very decent guy," says Dodd.
Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, led the emotional fight against the confirmation of former Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general. Daschle determined that Senate Democrats should not filibuster to prevent a vote on Ashcroft's nomination, yet Neas says he was "extraordinarily effective" as Democratic leader -- "a superstar."
The Ashcroft confirmation nicely illustrates the Daschle MO. The Democratic "base," the liberal interest groups like People for the American Way, the National Education Association and many others, were vehemently opposed to Ashcroft, whom they considered "to the right of Jesse Helms," as Neas put it. Yet Ashcroft enjoyed the courtesy traditionally extended to former members of the Senate nominated for Cabinet posts, and he benefited from goodwill toward a new president. Initially, fewer than 20 of the Senate's 50 Democrats seemed likely to vote against Ashcroft's confirmation.
But the liberal groups put on the pressure. After weeks of effort, those campaigning against him thought they had a shot at the 41 votes need to sustain a filibuster.
Daschle, characteristically, spent long hours with members of the Democratic caucus, individually and in groups, discussing the Ashcroft nomination. One Daschle trait mentioned by nearly every one of two dozen people interviewed for this article is his capacity for absorbing the views of others. "He can listen to them," said George Mitchell, who made Daschle a member of the Senate leadership when he was Democratic leader, then groomed him as his successor. From the listening Daschle likes to produce a consensus among people he describes as totally independent operators, not beholden to him in any way. In this case the consensus position was to let Ashcroft be confirmed, but with enough "no" votes to advertise the Democrats' ability to block appointments they disapproved of in the future.
Daschle joined 41 other Democrats in voting against Ashcroft. The Bush administration should realize that 42 votes would be enough to block other nominees in the future, Daschle said, mentioning particularly judicial appointees: "We're going to be very concerned when they come from the far right, and we'll use whatever means necessary," a reference to the filibuster. And everyone on his side seemed content with the outcome. When Bush later sent up his first group of judicial nominees, several staunch conservatives earlier rumored to be on the list had not been nominated.
From a Wing to a Player Tom Daschle came to Washington at the end of 1972, when he was just 25 years old, to work for Sen. James Abourezk, a liberal South Dakota Democrat who was elected to the Senate that year. Daschle -- just out of the Air Force -- and his wife, Laurie, had managed the Abourezk campaign in 10 counties around Aberdeen. They got that job because Abourezk knew and admired Laurie Daschle, who already had a reputation as an effective political operative in South Dakota. When he won, Abourezk offered Tom Daschle a job as a legislative assistant and asked Laurie Daschle to run his office. (The couple divorced 18 years ago; she is now Laurie Fulton, a partner in the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly.)
"It was all that I hoped it would be," says Daschle of that first job. "I had always loved politics, enjoyed public policy -- it was what I wanted to do." As an undergraduate at South Dakota State, Daschle supported Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign. Now he would play the game himself.
Abourezk's principal aide then was Peter Stavrianos, who quickly fell for Daschle. "I thought this is the most personable, friendly, decent person that I've ever seen. He wants to know what everybody else thinks. He loves listening to people."
Within a year, Stavrianos had concluded that Daschle was a man with a significant political future. In 1976, Daschle asked Abourezk if he could work for him back in South Dakota and simultaneously explore a race for the House. A year after that, he announced his candidacy, and in 1978, at age 30, he won a seat -- barely. He was originally certified the winner by 14 votes. After recounts, the official margin was set at 139.
That race shaped Daschle's view of politics ever afterward. Every vote really did count. Meeting people face to face, hearing them out and demonstrating your concern for their concerns was the way to win. "We went to 40,000 houses that first time," Daschle recalled. "In rural states you can still do a lot on a person-to-person basis."
He had four successful terms in the House, but Daschle wanted more. "Risk is something you've got to take in life," he says. "I was very comfortable, and loved my House seat, but when you're from a small state like mine, we had one vote out of 435. I really knew I probably wouldn't be able to fulfill my real hopes for public policy success as a lone congressman." So he decided to challenge the incumbent Republican senator who had defeated George S. McGovern in 1980, James Abdnor.
Stavrianos was by then Daschle's campaign manager. Daschle recalls their uncertainty about their prospects in November 1986. Stavrianos referred to the chart that recorded opinion poll results during the campaign as "a herringbone" -- the two candidates traded the lead back and forth all fall. "I remember having a very philosophical conversation with some of my best friends the day before the election," Daschle says. "I said 'I may be out of a job tomorrow.' "
But he wasn't. By just 9,484 votes (of 295,830 cast) he became -- at 38 -- the new senator from South Dakota. And he knew what he wanted next: a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He immediately organized a backstage campaign for himself, arguing that the Great Plains states (an important source of Democratic senators) were underrepresented on the committee. He got what he wanted.
Daschle was one of 11 new Democrats elected to the Senate in 1986. He encouraged them to organize informally and vote as a group when they could agree. When Sen. Byrd decided to relinquish the Democratic leader's job after the 1988 election, the freshmen of '86 turned out to be an influential bloc. They threw their weight almost unanimously behind Mitchell, who then won the contest for leader. He immediately invited the 40-year-old Daschle to join his leadership team as co-chairman (with Mitchell himself) of the Democratic policy committee.
So 16 years after a boyish Daschle first arrived on Capitol Hill, he was a member of the Senate leadership. Thirteen years after that, he is the Senate leadership. It may be a unique biography -- how many 53-year-olds have 28 years' experience on Capitol Hill? Indeed, the only paychecks Tom Daschle has ever cashed have been drawn on the United States Treasury -- in the Air Force, or in Congress.
But it would be wrong to say Congress has been Daschle's career. The truth is, Congress has been Daschle's life. He gets up at 5 or 5:30 every morning to run four miles and then read the papers, mostly online. According to former aide Michael Meehan, the staff gets e-mailed comments and instructions from him that were sent "by 6 or 7 in the morning." Adds Ron Klain: "He's just very determined about his work, and never gets far from it."
He meets with everybody, or so it seems. Daschle is a favorite not only among his colleagues but among Washington's lobbyists, who find him available and easy to deal with. Daschle can be blind to lobbyists trying to take advantage of his friendly nature, a longtime aide says.
Daschle's new job is his most challenging yet. Ironically, his big moment follows by just a few weeks his biggest embarrassment as Democratic leader -- the Republicans' triumphant passage of President Bush's tax plan, with the support of 12 Democratic senators. Trent Lott and his colleagues rolled Daschle on the tax bill, limiting Democrats' spending options for years to come. The Democratic defections on tax cuts, and the leadership's inability to delay them, demonstrate how difficult it will be for Daschle to mold a unified Democratic platform while managing the egos and policy preferences of 49 other men and women scattered across the political spectrum.
Nor will it be easy for a man barely known by the public to fill the role of First Democrat. Polls suggest that Daschle and his House counterpart, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, have made scant impression on the country as spokesmen for the majority of voters who favored Al Gore over George W. Bush in November. His years as a Washington player have not made Daschle a marquee player.
But none of this dampened the spirits of Democrats in the Capitol yesterday. When Daschle grinned, the lines that shoot back from the corners of his eyes were deep. He was savoring the moment as the beneficiary of a bolt from the blue called Jeffords that has changed everything in Washington. Tom Daschle has had a charmed political life until now, and he's obviously prepared for that to continue.
"I feel very comfortable just being who I am," he said late last week. As of today, he's Mr. Majority Leader.