Is Tom Daschle Ready for His Close-up?

As the Democrats' point man on the economy, he'll hog the spotlight. A winning performance could put him in the White House

By Howard Gleckman

It's showtime for Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Throughout what promises to be a bloody, months-long battle over taxes, spending, and the economy, the boyish-looking but tough-as-nails Daschle will be his party's most visible spokesman. He'll be the guy you will see trying to lay the blame for a faltering economy, a plunging stock market, and a shrinking surplus on President Bush.

If Daschle, 54, can effectively convince voters that Bush has trashed the economy, looted Social Security, and put Medicare at risk, he will severely weaken the President. He'll also become a force to be reckoned with when Democrats choose their Presidential nominee in 2004. But if he flops, Daschle could become Bush's foil on a road to recovery.

Pulling it off will be quite a trick. Daschle must first hold together Congressional Democrats -- a task that former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) once described as akin to herding cats. They are united in blaming Bush for the nation's economic and fiscal problems, but they can't agree on what to do about it.

Mission Impossible will be uniting the dozen Senate Democrats and 23 House Democrats who voted for Bush's massive tax cut, with the 154 House Democrats and 38 Senate Democrats who rejected it. He'll have to get those Democrats who would love to jumpstart the economy with a big spending initiative to make peace with the party's fiscal conservatives. And he'll have to keep Democrats from stumbling into the trap of calling for a rollback of the Bush tax cut.


  Most of all, he's going to have to cobble together some sort of coherent Democratic strategy for what to do about the economy and the budget. Bush-bashing is fine for now, but doesn't have a lot of long-term staying power. At some point, Daschle is going to have to answer the question, "But what would you do, Senator?"

Holding the party together is just part of Daschle's job. He's got to be a dynamic voice for whatever agenda the Democrats do cook up. The soft-spoken South Dakotan doesn't have to worry about becoming a partisan lightening rod a la former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich. His Midwestern aw-shucks style will make it tough for the Bushies to paint him as a political hatchetman. But Daschle does have to convince voters that he is big enough for the White House.

In terms of boosting his own political stock, this is Daschle's battle to lose. Other congressional Democrats with Presidential ambitions, such as House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, can do little more than sit by and watch. If Daschle stumbles, look for one or more of them to try to pick up the party banner. But if he connects with voters, they will be relegated to the bench.


  And all this still leaves Al Gore. The former Vice-President remains a formidable fund-raiser. And he has the support of many Democrats who are still convinced that he was robbed last November and deserves a second chance.

Soft sentiments and fair play rarely determine the outcome of Presidential campaigns, however. My hunch is that if Daschle wows 'em over the next few months, he could be the next Democratic nominee for President. But one thing is sure: He is about to get a rare chance to take center stage on a set of issues that play to his strengths. Let's see what he makes of it.

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht