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Martyr Complex

Tom Daschle is a lucky guy. Not so long ago, he appeared washed up and finished in Washington politics, a guy who couldn’t catch a break from the left or the right. In 2004, South Dakota voters threw him out of office, evidently feeling that he had become too much of a Washington liberal. At the same time, liberal Democrats disdained him for caving to the Bush regime. After the 2000 Florida recount, Daschle was quick to call for unity and recognition of George Bush’s legitimacy. As de facto leader of the opposition during Bush’s first term, Daschle struggled to keep his Senate caucus united, and failed to stop Bush’s huge tax cuts. He voted to authorize the war in Iraq. And, perhaps most famously, Daschle publicly hugged Bush just after the president’s speech a few days after September 11. For many liberals the moment symbolized a capitulation by Washington Democrats to the Bush-DeLay-Fox News machine. It’s no wonder Daschle was a target of mockery in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Today, however, the former Senate Democratic leader sits in Barack Obama’s inner circle--along with several former members of his staff--and is reportedly a potential Obama running mate. There’s also little lingering ill will towards Daschle among liberal activists, columnists, and bloggers, who have largely forgiven him for his literal and figurative embraces of the president. One big reason is the abuse Daschle suffered at the hands of conservatives in what appeared to be a calculated campaign to undermine him in Washington and at home, and which culminated in his loss to John Thune. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, began referring to Daschle as “El Diablo,” and accused him of “align[ing] himself with the axis of evil.” One 2002 South Dakota newspaper ad presented Daschle’s face next to a photo of Saddam Hussein. As a result, Democrats remember Daschle more as a martyr than a failure.

And Daschle deserves some forgiveness. As the party’s Senate leader, he was in the impossible position of trying to hold the Democratic line while representing a state that would vote 60-38 for Bush in 2004. Several other members of his caucus--Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu, and Ben Nelson, to name a few--were in similar positions, undermining his ability to keep his caucus united. Yet despite Bush’s popularity in South Dakota, Daschle railed bitterly at the 2001 income tax cut (only to be undercut by Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman) and blocked other key GOP initiatives, like oil drilling in Alaska, surely to his personal detriment back home.

It’s possible that another Senate leader could have been more effective. The mild-mannered Daschle wasn’t always the most compelling speaker, and lacked the knack for the pithy wisecrack of the current Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid. (On the other hand, Reid can sometimes be too abrasive.) After Daschle’s defeat, a number of Democrats complained that he hadn’t been a tough enough campaigner. “Some people think his loss was partially because he didn't go negative early enough,” a former aide told the Washington Post.

But whatever their frustrations about Daschle’s approach to campaigning, Senate Democrats have always spoken highly of his gentle touch and inclusive approach to the caucus, not to mention his ability to sound polite even when he chose to attack Republicans. Knowing how to shiv with a smile is a critical skill for any potential running mate--one of several reasons, no doubt, that Daschle is on Obama’s list. More importantly, however, Daschle would be a fine guide for Obama through the minefields of Capitol Hill. His experience there dates back three decades, to when he was an aide to a South Dakota senator.

Daschle comes with substantial drawbacks: His wife is a longtime lobbyist, and he himself has recently advised a big K Street firm. It’s not clear how that would square with a candidate vowing to stamp out the influence of lobbyists. Moreover, Obama has almost zero chance of carrying South Dakota (which Daschle failed to deliver for Obama in its June 3 primary). Those are good reasons why Daschle might fit better as Obama’s chief of staff. But his smarts, experience, and smooth demeanor still make him worth considering for the number-two slot. And fortunately for Daschle, it seems his shortcomings during the bad old days of Bush’s first term have largely been forgiven, forgotten, or both.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.