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April 24, 2004
Frist and Daschle: Splitsville?

It must be a slow day at the New York Times political desk. This morning's edition features a breathless story on how Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's campaigning in South Dakota on behalf of the Republican challenger to Minority Leader Tom Daschle breaks a long-held precedent of which everyone else is unaware:

In a sharp break with political nicety and past practice, Dr. Frist, the majority leader from Tennessee, is planning to venture into the backyard of Mr. Daschle, the minority leader, in May on behalf of John Thune, a Republican hoping to unseat Mr. Daschle in what is expected to be a highly competitive race.

It is an unusual move, especially given the extent to which the leaders must consult each other in a closely divided Senate. Experts in the Senate historical office could find no recent comparable example of one leader trying so aggressively to oust the other. ... For instance, Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, was known to have a close friendship with his regular adversary, Howard H. Baker Jr., Republican of Tennessee, when they held the leadership spots. And despite their pronounced political differences, Mr. Daschle had a relatively civil relationship with Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi when the latter was the Republican leader.

Well, pardon Frist for practicing politics, but is this really that much of a problem? The Times goes on to discuss how closely the two Senate leaders must work on legislation, but that's a function of their jobs and their motivation to get as much of their own agenda through, not one of friendship. Besides, look where Daschle's "civil relationship" with Trent Lott got Lott in the end; the Democrats couldn't wait to savage Lott over his comments at Strom Thurmond's retirement, even though when Dodd made similarly foolish remarks on behalf of Robert Byrd, the sudden quiet was deafening.

The story does provide a glimpse of the tactics Daschle plans to use to get himself re-elected ... mostly pandering, to no one's great surprise:

"I only hope that in addition to whatever politics may be a part of his agenda," Mr. Daschle told reporters on Tuesday, "when he comes to South Dakota he'll take the time to listen to South Dakotans about the drought, about country-of-origin labeling, about the No Child Left Behind Act."

He said he hoped Dr. Frist would recognize the need to keep open Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder, S.D. A campaign spokesman for Mr. Daschle pointed out that as a Senate leader, Mr. Daschle would be able to appoint members of a future base-closing commission; Mr. Thune presumably would not.

Of course, Frist and Thune could defuse the military base issue rather easily by publicly supporting keeping South Dakota bases open. If Daschle loses to Thune and the Democrats retaliate by voting to close the bases down, they can write off South Dakota for a generation. Daschle has even less standing when it comes to his role in obstructing judicial nominations, which is one of the reasons Frist felt it necessary to directly campaign against Daschle. It shouldn't surprise the New York Times that the Frist/Daschle relationship has become so politically charged in that context; it would be a big surprise and a dereliction of Frist's duty as a party leader to ignore it.

However, we can, I am sure, look forward to many more pieces from the New York Times casting Republicans as the villains during the coming election, even if they have to reach this far to do it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 24, 2004 8:03 AM

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