Until a couple of weeks ago, figuring out who was to blame for the intelligence failures before Sept. 11 wasn't on Tom Daschle's must-do list. Since the beginning of the year, the majority leader had been busy corralling balky Democrats in the Senate on the down-home issues that would play best in the November elections: Social Security, health care, education, pension protection and the environment. But with evidence of FBI bungling impossible to ignore and reporters badgering him for a response, Daschle decided to go off message in a politically risky way. He announced on May 21 that he would introduce a bill as early as this week to form an independent commission to probe what went wrong.
President Bush was not happy. Senate minority leader Trent Lott went ballistic and said the Republicans would block the measure. FBI Director Robert Mueller's mea culpa last week gave Daschle some needed cover for his proposal. But the danger for Daschle was closer to home: his action just might jeopardize the Democrats' tenuous hold on the Senate, and his position as majority leader. Polls show that while Republicans are vulnerable on domestic issues, Democrats are ill advised to go after Bush's popular war on terrorism. And no one knows that better than Daschle's rival Lott. "Our message is, Defense first," Lott countered, accusing Daschle of trying to interrupt Bush's war with a political inquisition.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Democrats' taking over the Senate after Daschle enticed Vermont Senator James Jeffords to bolt from the Republican Party. For Daschle, the year has been an emotional roller coaster, with an anthrax-laced letter shutting down his Senate office for almost six months and conservative groups, egged on by Lott and the White House, blanketing his home state of South Dakota with TV and newspaper ads demonizing him for blocking Bush's agenda.
The attacks have hardly dented Daschle's popularity back home. In a state with only 530,000 voters, he's used to cultivating his constituents virtually one by one. Last month he passed up commencement addresses at large universities to speak to a graduating class of 12 high school seniors in Hecla, S.D., a tiny town near the North Dakota border--a shrewd political gesture that got him major newspaper play in the state. But Daschle, who has had a beefed-up security detail since Sept. 11, is seething over being targeted by the G.O.P., believing it's partly responsible for threats he continues to receive. Newspaper ads have depicted him side by side with Iraq's dictator. "When they compare me to Saddam Hussein, I don't know how much more negative it can get," he says.
Managing the Senate with a one-vote majority hasn't been a picnic; Daschle likens it to "loading frogs on a wheelbarrow." Senate Democrats are a fractured--and fractious--bunch, including liberals itching to blast Bush, Southern "Dealocrats" who want to compromise with the White House, and presidential wannabes with their eyes on the 2004 prize. Daschle, who keeps an index card in his shirt pocket with favors that the Senators want each day, can sit for hours listening to their complaints. He has cultivated all of them, says majority whip Harry Reid, by "convincing each Senator that he or she is his favorite."