As the 108th Congress convened today, the two men charged with leading the Democrats in recent years each made stunning announcements. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) declared that he will not run for president in 2004, while former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has decided not to seek re-election to Congress next year.
Their announcements came as Democrats are gearing up for their race for the White House and as they are trying to stymie President Bush's agenda in Congress. Whether or not their statements were intentionally timed to do so, Gephardt and Daschle seem to have carved out a Democratic division of labor for the next two years: One will run for the White House; and one will focus his energy in Washington and on the legislative battles ahead.
Daschle -- who, unlike Gephardt, experienced what it was like to be in a majority -- sees an unusual opportunity in the Senate, and one that would not have existed if Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had remained the majority leader. While the seasoned Lott was ready to lead Republicans in the new Congress, his successor, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is not. Frist still hasn't finished staffing his offices or releasing his agenda for the year ahead. What's more, Frist is surrounded by other Republicans new to their leadership jobs, including Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Daschle and Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on the other hand, released their objectives for the new Congress on Tuesday. These include passing a prescription-drug benefit, increasing the minimum wage, spending more money on education and enacting pension reform. As Daschle said Tuesday in announcing his decision, a person has to be focused 100 percent on winning the presidency if that's his or her goal. "When I truly confronted the question of what it is I most want to do and where my passion lies today," he said, "I concluded that I want to be here in the Senate, making a difference for my state and my country."
Daschle -- the target of GOP criticism last year that he was "obstructing" President Bush's agenda -- would never have escaped the "obstructionist" label on the campaign trail. It might have helped him in the Democratic primaries but would have haunted him in the general election; the image of him as an obstructionist is already fixed in too many voters' minds. He would also have had a hard time leading a Senate where three other party members -- Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- would be competing for the White House against him. And by staying in his current role, he'll be able to claim an important victory should Democrats win back the Senate in 2004. Keeping his seat in the Democratic column is vital for Democratic chances of regaining their majority status.
Daschle's decision no doubt helps Gephardt, who was going after many of the same donors. And while Daschle focuses on scoring points in Washington, Gephardt clearly has other aims. By giving up his seat as minority leader at the end of the last Congress, Gephardt signaled that he had given up on the idea of trying to become speaker of the house, a goal that eluded him in the last four elections. That really left him no reason to stay in Congress. The question for Gephardt now is how much support he'll enjoy from the Democratic base. If he couldn't help the party win back control of the House from Republicans, how is he going to be able to wrest he White House from President Bush? And how does he propose to win the nomination in 2004 when he couldn't do it in 1988? Those are questions that he'll have to answer in the coming months, as he asks party leaders and fundraisers to back his campaign.
It's not surprising that both men released this information today. With others such as Edwards having launched their presidential exploratory committees, there's now substantial pressure on all potential candidates to make up their minds. And even though Democrats no longer run the Senate, Lott's ugly resignation may have given the Dems their best chance yet of stalling Bush's proposals. Now that Daschle and Gephardt have decided how they'll spend the next couple of years, their challenge is to realize their goals. If that happens, we could be looking at a very different Washington two years from now.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is the Prospect's senior editor.