Daschle's SOS

The nation's top Democrat wages his own little war.

Published April 2, 2003 12:16AM (EST)

As the war abroad continued to escalate last week, the nation's leading Democrat requested help for someone else under attack: himself. In response to Republican criticism, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's reelection committee sent out an e-mail last Thursday to union presidents and other supporters asking for them to "take the time to defend Senator Daschle from his critics."

The e-mail, obtained by Salon, noted that after Daschle "criticized the Administration's diplomatic efforts, the conservative attack machine went into full swing." On March 18, right before President George W. Bush issued his final ultimatum to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Daschle told an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees audience that he was "saddened, saddened, that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to go to war. Saddened that we have to give up one life because this president couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our country." These remarks were criticized for any number of reasons -- but the timing was particularly bad.

The Daschle e-mail goes on to complain that the Republican National Committee, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, former Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., and their allies "put out scathing attacks on Senator Daschle -- going so far as to even question his patriotism." These criticisms, the e-mail stated, are being used by conservatives to "flood their rhetoric on talk radio and in news rooms across the state and country." It implored recipients to defend Daschle, who served with Air Force Intelligence during the Vietnam War, "as a veteran, a patriot, and the best friend South Dakota veterans ever had."

"Please speak out," the e-mail pleads. "This is important." Attached to the e-mail is a March 22 column by Beltway pundit Mark Shields defending Daschle.

Anita Dunn, a consultant for Daschle's political action committee DASHPAC, says that the e-mail was sent to dozens of supporters, union officials and others, and noted that it did not include a fundraising solicitation.

Daschle is up for reelection in 2004 and faces a possibly tough challenge from Thune, who lost a close Senate race last November to Daschle's protégé, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. The note does state that "we pray for our troops and for all the people affected by this conflict. If you have family members or loved ones involved, our thoughts are with them and you."

Kind words about the troops aside, the e-mail drew some mixed reviews from those Salon contacted. "I thought it was totally strange," said one union official who asked not to be named.

In many ways Daschle's note is symbolic of a larger problem for the Democrats: They need to both support our troops, lest they be painted as less than patriotic, yet they also need to point out the president's missteps, raise funds and prepare for the 2004 elections. This can create awkward situations -- ones that Republicans, better organized and funded, can easily exploit.

A Gallup poll released Monday indicated that more Americans have an unfavorable impression of Daschle than favorable -- 38 percent to 32 percent.

"When they launch full attacks on him it often leads to this result in the numbers," a Daschle staffer commented. The staffer dismissed the unfavorable rating as only indicating that "the people paying attention to these attacks are for the most part the Republican base."

Calling the timing of the e-mail "a little bit distasteful," John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. -- who slammed Daschle's comments last month -- said the e-mail is "a pretty clever way to try to hang a lantern on your problem. You tell your supporters that you made a stupid comment and they need to fight back because you made a stupid comment -- it's pretty clever." Feehery noted that Hastert typically "doesn't make comments about other members" of the House or Senate, "but Daschle's comments were so far beyond the pale."

Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said that "it's disappointing that they've chosen to put the letter out and continue an episode that most of us have put behind us." Stevenson calls the e-mail "a mistake" but adds, "I think it's ill-advised, but that's up to Daschle's political folks. But at a time when we're in conflict and we have men and women in harm's way, well, that's for others to judge whether that's appropriate or not."

At the time, Daschle also took a hit from the White House, with spokesman Ari Fleischer saying, "He's essentially blaming President Bush for the fact that we may be on the verge of war." That was hardly the only objection.

Hastert issued a statement saying that Daschle's remarks "may not undermine the president as he leads us into war and they may not comfort our adversaries, but they come mighty close." He added that "Daschle has spent more time criticizing the leadership of President Bush than he has spent criticizing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein."

Others joined the parade. Republican National Committee chairman Marc Racicot called the event "disheartening and shameful," "divisive and brazen political posturing," and said that Daschle was "blam(ing) America first." Frist said his colleague's remarks were "deeply disappointing," and that any idea that the lives of U.S. soldiers "in some way have been compromised by the president of the United States is irresponsible." Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., No. 3 in the Senate GOP leadership, said "Daschle clearly articulated the French position." "Fermez la bouche, Monsieur Daschle," Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas said.

Also reading from le script français was Thune, who said on KELO-AM in Sioux Falls that the remarks were more likely to have come "from the south of France, not from South Dakota." In one of the first salvos of their probable 2004 face-off, Thune said that "like a lot of people across South Dakota, when they hear that -- especially now in this environment when we have troops in the field ... people are very disappointed to hear that kind of reaction."

Daschle himself later expressed regret at the timing of the remarks. "I had no idea when I said them what the timing of the military operation would be," he said last Thursday, the same day his e-mail was sent out.

One Republican strategist -- who asked not to be named since he didn't want to be seen as engaging in politics during the war -- said that the Daschle e-mail is problematic for the minority leader since it indicates that "he seems to be embracing not only what he said but the timing of when he said it." Another Republican political strategist, who worked for one of Bush's opponents during the 2000 Republican primaries, says that the Daschle approach is "not smart." The way to go after Bush and his team is to "belittle them," the strategist says. "Here you have a 'woe is me' quality -- that just makes them happy."

One Democratic strategist saw the e-mail as indicative of a larger partywide problem. While Daschle's e-mail "might be kind of pathetic," the strategist said, "what's more pathetic is that his party doesn't stand behind him more." Daschle has decided to take on a more aggressive posture, "and is to be applauded for that, but the problem is that there's no supporting choir for him. At the DNC, the structure is not there, and the Senate is not known as a place of grand alliances -- especially when you have six guys running for president."

The Daschle reelection staffers "have the right inclination, they just don't have the timing right," the strategist said, referring to the 13-day-old war in Iraq.

Added the union official, "That he didn't have a proxy -- say, the DNC -- to issue the appeal and do the legwork for him ... gives this its cry-in-the-dark quality."

Asked for the name of a senator who might speak to Salon in defense of Daschle, Daschle's office recommended Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Durbin's office e-mailed over a statement of support he'd issued the week before saying that the "coordinated Republican attack" on Daschle "is not only unfair, it is an effort to stifle one of the most important core values of our democracy." That some question Daschle's patriotism "should be fair warning to every American that some defenders of the President's policies are willing to do so at the expense of our traditional constitutional freedoms," the statement concluded.

But Frist spokesman Stevenson asked whether the "conservative attack machine" also includes a number of Democrats who, when asked for their views on Daschle's comments, begged off considerably, like Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who on the day of the remarks said "there is plenty of time later to point fingers and to figure out what went wrong with what. But tonight is a night for us to unite our country and have our thoughts and prayers for our young people out there in the Gulf." Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said in response that "you have got to say that the blame for the war is Saddam Hussein's," as did former Sen. Tim Wirth, D-Colo., who said in response that "the failure is Saddam Hussein's."

Daschle's home state newspapers were harsher, Stevenson notes. In fact, the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader editorialized that "Tom Daschle was out of line" and "went far beyond what was needed"; the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan condemned Daschle's "fierce partisan rhetoric" and called for him "to elevate himself from that garbage at once."

Daschle consultant Dunn says that those taking issue with the timing of the Daschle missive need to address their reservations elsewhere. "In terms of timing," Dunn said, "this letter came following a period" when Daschle was attacked by Hastert, DeLay, Frist, Santorum, chair of the GOP House Conference Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., Racicot and Fleischer.

"Many of our supporters were saying, 'We want to hear from you, all these Republicans are attacking,'" Dunn said.

One Daschle advisor alleged that the attack originated at the White House and was done so for purely political reasons -- so President Bush could more easily pass his legislative agenda. "Clearly they recognize that since January of 2001, when the Senate was 50-50, that Senator Daschle as the leader of the Senate Democrats was in a position to heavily influence what happens to the White House agenda and they've made him their No. 1 target."

The Daschle brouhaha came toward the end of the filibuster against the federal appeals court nomination of Miguel Estrada, and just as the Senate was about to defeat the Bush initiative to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It also occurred "right before Senator Daschle defeated a huge part of their tax policy," the Daschle strategist says, referring to last week's move by the Senate to cut Bush's proposed $726 billion tax cut to a mere $350 billion.

The Senate "is the only place in Washington they cannot just roll people." The Daschle strategist hadn't "a doubt" that this was a White House-coordinated effort.

Fleischer did not return a call for comment. But Feehery disputed any coordination, saying Hastert felt personally compelled to respond. Frist spokesman Stevenson also dismissed such a charge. "There was absolutely no coordination by the White House. That's ridiculous." Frist was asked what he thought about Daschle's comments at the weekly press stakeout following the GOP policy lunch, Stevenson said.

Meanwhile, nationally, a March 19 and 20 survey by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm, indicated that 34 percent of those polled believed Daschle's statement reflected what they thought, while 64 percent disagreed.

The Democratic strategist also complained of "people who haven't served, and [who] are Republican, questioning the patriotism of those who have served and are Democrats." After graduating from college in 1969, Daschle enlisted in the Air Force and served as an intelligence officer until 1972. While Racicot served as a judge advocate general in the Army from 1973-76, Hastert, DeLay, Frist, Santorum, Pryce, Coleman, Fleischer and Thune have never served in the military.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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