All in a name

Is "Daschle Democrat" a vicious slur or the height of flattery?

Published April 26, 2002 10:07PM (EDT)

The fight over the term "Daschle Democrats," coined by conservatives to attack Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, has taken a new turn in the past few weeks. While commentators like Donald Lambro of the Washington Times continue to use the term derisively, a group including a number of prominent Democrats has launched a campaign to transform its connotation from negative to positive.

The phrase entered the media's bloodstream last May, when Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the GOP, became an independent and gave Democrats control of the Senate, elevating Daschle to majority leader. William Safire announced in his New York Times column on May 24 that Jeffords is "just another Daschle Democrat, comfortable with his ideological kin." That same day, Larry Kudlow used the term in the National Review Online, suggesting that "while it may be true that the Daschle Democrats will take over the operations of the Senate, there is no pronounced move to the left."

Republicans quickly picked up the strategy of attacking Daschle in order to tar all Democrats by association. In July, Dave Boyer of the Washington Times reported that "Republicans acknowledge privately that the effort is coordinated and serves two purposes: to highlight their priorities by focusing on one Democratic 'bogeyman' and to bruise the political career of a media-savvy opponent [Daschle] with few glaring weaknesses yet for 2004." Last December, the strategy was made even more explicit in a memo from Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who suggested that "[i]t's time for someone, everyone, to start using the phrase 'Daschle Democrats' and the word 'obstructionist' in the same sentence ... It's time for Congressional Republicans to personalize the individual that is standing directly in the way of economic security, and even national security. Remember what the Democrats did to Gingrich? We need to do exactly the same thing to Daschle."

Perhaps no pundit has done the most to keep the term "Daschle Democrats" in the national debate than Lambro. In column after column he has repeated the phrase, attaching it to other bits of pejorative jargon and attacks on various Democratic policies. Since Democrats took control of the Senate last May, he has used the term at least 11 times in 11 separate columns, each in a negative context. Three examples from the past few weeks are illustrative. On April 11, Lambro claimed that "Saddam Hussein's latest move to cut off Iraq's oil exports for a month ... handed the White House a powerful national security argument against the anti-drilling Daschle Democrats." On April 22, he suggested that "the Daschle Democrats are blocking the administration's efforts to explore new sources of energy to make America less dependent on foreign oil." And on Thursday he claimed that "a Senate majority [is] being redefined by the Daschle Democrats as 60 votes" (a reference to Democratic threats to filibuster any bill allowing oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge).

Democrats, aware that it's difficult to re-spin an established catchphrase, have started a campaign of their own to define the term in a positive way. A group of Daschle supporters -- including former Daschle aide and Clinton chief of staff John Podesta and several prominent South Dakota Democratic politicians -- have launched a group called Daschle Democrats that has begun running radio and TV ads in the state. The group's Web site tells us that "'Daschle Democrat' is a term we promote with pride," claiming that like Tom Daschle himself, "a 'Daschle Democrat: believes it is unacceptable that millions of American families are without health insurance. A Daschle Democrat believes every child has a fundamental right to attend a quality public school and live in a safe neighborhood. A Daschle Democrat believes in a fair deal for working families, not corporate favors or tax breaks for only the wealthiest." The fact that the group has chosen to contest the term "Daschle Democrats" -- a term invented by conservatives -- shows how seriously both sides are taking the language of political media coverage. As one lobbyist told Paul Kane of Roll Call, "Initially, there was a sense that you didn't have to take this seriously because it was, in our minds, so off the mark" but now it would be "political malpractice not to respond."

Though the 2004 election is still over two years away, it's clear that the semantic battles that will help define the campaigns have already started.

By Bryan Keefer

Bryan Keefer is the co-editor of Spinsanity.

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