Tough D:

With Republicans controlling Congress, the White House, and -- apparently -- the Supreme Court, things might look bleak for progressives. But for those concerned about a crush of conservatism, hush -- the sky is not quite falling. A discombobulated team of Democratic senators will strain valiantly to hold it up. And they may just succeed.

This team is hardly a fine-tuned demolition machine like the Ravens or the Giants. But it may turn out that the very heterogeneity of the Senate Dems will make them the perfect match for the conservadors unleashed on Inauguration Day.

Without planning it that way, Democratic senators tend towards the good cop, bad cop strategy when dealing with ruffian Republicans. The bad cops hurl insults, staking out far-left positions from which to negotiate; the good cops cozy up to their adversaries and offer compromise.

Democratic senators excel at backroom backslapping or cultivating the grass roots. The backroom negotiators persuade senators directly. The grassroots cultivators mobilize interest groups and seek media attention; and once they've persuaded the public, their colleagues tend to follow. Though no one planned the diversity of style on Team D, it may serve useful for defeating the most conservative elements of the George W. Bush juggernaut.

Below are some of the players:



























Senate Grid


Tom Daschle

One observer compared the Senate minority leader's job to herding cats. That makes South Dakota's Senator Tom Daschle Dr. Dolittle. Which is to say that he has a following because he talks and listens. According to one Daschle aide, "Daschle's ammo is inclusiveness. The more he has vetted things, the more comfortable he is."

Daschle chooses to use the multi-mindedness of his Democratic team to his advantage. His leadership team includes Democrats as left as California Senator Barbara Boxer and as right as Louisiana Senator John Breaux. If Daschle can get the leadership team on the same page, says his aide, he's generally in good shape with the whole conference.

The trick is getting the leadership on the same page. Unlike legendary screamer and layer-down of the law, former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, Daschle has a quiet bark and little bite. So far, his low-key herding has kept Democrats (relatively) in line. And the fact that Democrats now have a common enemy in George W. Bush may help with Democratic unity this Congress. (For more on Daschle, see the American Prospect's "King of the Hill?".)


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Patrick Leahy

Bad Cop, Backroom Negotiator


After Tom Daschle, Senator Patrick Leahy may be the most important member of the Democratic team when it comes to blocking the Bushies. As the last Watergate baby, Leahy is senatorial in the stateliest sense of the word. But beneath his quiet demeanor, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee is liberal, he's angry, and he's armed.

From the leftward state of Vermont, Leahy has made his name fighting for progressive causes such as banning landmines and putting a moratorium on the death penalty. Leahy has also spent the last eight years fighting for the approval of Clinton judicial appointees in the face of Republican stalling and blocking tactics. The frustration of a vacancy-riddled federal court system and indignation over what Leahy sees as an injudicious decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore has girded Leahy for whatever battles are necessary to ensure that Bush doesn't put any right-wingers on the Supreme Court. "I think the closeness of the election and the ill will engendered by the Supreme Court is going to make it difficult for the new administration to make some clear ideological stamp on the courts," Leahy told the New York Times.

Leahy's mad, and he can get even. "His advantage is that he comes across as very moderate and reasonable and circumspect," says political expert Larry Sabato. Leahy has (circumspectly) expressed serious doubts about attorney general nominee John Ashcroft -- and he called Judge Ronnie White (whose judicial nomination Ashcroft sandbagged) to testify at Ashcroft's confirmation hearing.


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Max Baucus

Good Cop, Backroom Negotiator


With the retirement of crusty New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Montana's Senator Max Baucus rises to ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. However, Baucus earned the title by sticking it out (22 years in the Senate), rather than gaining the admiration of colleagues. "He is not one of the inner-sanctum guys in the gym," says one liberal lobbyist. Nor is Baucus a media darling. On the rare occasions on which Baucus has made the papers in recent years, many of the stories have centered on a sexual harassment suit that a former staffer brought against him. (Baucus adamantly denies the charges.)

Hailing from Montana (more moderate than neighboring Idaho, but that's not saying much), Baucus's politics are decidedly centrist, especially on tax cuts. And he may veer rightward in the next Congress. Baucus is up for reelection in 2002, and beloved Montana Governor Mark Racicot (yes, the guy you saw on TV during the Florida frenzy) may run against him. If so, Baucus will be a presumed loser -- a fact that could cow him during key battles. Capitalizing on Bush's landslide in Montana, the Republican Leadership Council is already running ads pressuring Baucus to support tax cuts. Daschle has resumed his seat on the Finance Committee, where he may assume unofficial leadership.

But Baucus isn't a total loss for the D Team. These election jitters may grease the cogs of compromise when the time comes. Republicans know that Baucus is a Democrat with whom they can deal.


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Ted Kennedy

Bad Cop, Grassroots Cultivator


After 38 years in the Senate, Ted Kennedy is a giant (by reputation, ego, and increasingly, girth) among giants. Starting his career with a major boost from his dynastic family, Kennedy has built a magnificent record on liberal causes. Kennedy was active in the Democrats' defeat of conservative Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and is already working with interest groups to defeat attorney general appointee John Ashcroft.

Liberals can count on Kennedy and his talented (and all-nighter pulling) staff to help head off any rightward-tipping nominees that Bush puts forward. He'll help rally the faithful against big tax cuts -- and the faithful will call their senators. However, as a man whose name is synonymous with big-government liberalism, Kennedy has little sway with Republicans.


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John Breaux

Good Cop, Backroom Negotiator


While Democrats concerned with party discipline find Senator John Breaux a maddening maverick, he is ballyhooed on both sides of the aisle. While conservative enough to have been courted by George W. Bush for a cabinet post (he said no), Breaux still holds a leadership position in the Democratic caucus. And he served successfully in the partisan post atop the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the 1990 election cycle.

Now that party-bucking senators Bob Kerrey and Pat Moynihan have left the Senate, Breaux is widely hailed as one of the most powerful members of either caucus. In an evenly divided Senate, "John Breaux is a major player on anything," says one lobbyist. Putting the best face on the seersucker-clad smoothie, Democrats relish Breaux's renowned deal-cutting powers. Breaux can be very helpful on the leadership team, says a senior Democratic leadership aide, because Majority Leader Trent Lott and other conservatives will tell Breaux things they would never breathe to Daschle.


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Kent Conrad

Bad Cop, Backroom Negotiator


North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, with his big glasses and earnest demeanor, is the wonk next door. Now that he has ascended to ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee and still sits on Finance, next-door is a powerhouse. As a Budget Committee member, Conrad will get the first crack at key issues such as tax cuts and debt reduction. On Finance, he will help decide the details of tax cuts and other proposals.

The former tax commissioner is relatively liberal, but unassumingly so. When he arrives at liberal conclusions, he presents them so sensibly that even opponents have to nod along. This year, he's pushing for smaller, more progressive tax cuts and more debt reduction than Republicans propose. On the heels of his reelection this fall, Conrad will plug along behind the scenes (with fellow North Dakotan Senator Byron Dorgan) slowly shoving GOP plans into the wood chipper.


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Dick Durbin

Bad Cop, Grassroots Cultivator


Jovial and respected, liberal but moderate in tone, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is one of the sleeper stars of the Senate. During the 2000 campaign, Durbin asked for a vote on George W. Bush's $1.3-trillion tax plan, crowing when Republicans shelved it. Al Gore considered him for vice president, and Daschle recently helped put him on the Judiciary Committee to assist the team on key nominations. But Durbin's partisanship hasn't earned him conservative ire. Even the hard-right National Review calls Durbin, "a scandal-free team player who doesn't need a Chevy Suburban to carry around his ego." In good news for Senate Dems, Durbin recently announced he would not run for governor of Illinois -- a race in which he would have been the favorite.


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Joe Lieberman

Good Cop, Grassroots Cultivator

Senator Joseph Lieberman is the big question mark of the next Congress. No one doubts that he'll be influential -- but how? Before Al Gore tapped him for the partisan job of vice presidential nominee, Lieberman had iconoclastic tendencies. As one Democratic staffer sees it, Lieberman was "always one of the first to the door when the going got tough." To most, however, Lieberman's reputation is for thoughtfulness and morality. With his solidly independent record, Lieberman has become influential within the party's moderate wing.

Lieberman had to play down his bipartisan tendencies during the campaign, lashing out at the Big Bad GOP. Now that he's been through the election crucible, Lieberman will have to choose whether to wear his D on his sleeve. Whether he does or not, his newfound fame will make him a powerful public advocate -- be it for partisanship or compromise.


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Harry Reid

Bad Cop, Backroom Negotiator


As the official nose-counter of the Senate, Nevada Senator Harry Reid does not live up to his title of whip. Instead of a lashing, you'll get an arm around the shoulder from the unassuming senator. And according to his staff, you'll smile after he coaxes you to cut the crap.

Aside from his opposition to abortion (he is a devout Mormon), Reid is a middle-of-the-party party man. Reid's decidedly moderate state probably prompts him to hide his bleeding heart under a bushel. Reid's chances of winning elections have always seemed just better than the odds at the Nevada slot machines; he won reelection in 1998 by only 428 votes. Until his next election contest, however, Reid will be a quiet, but powerful force for the Democrats.


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Robert Torricelli

Good Cop, Grassroots Cultivator


They don't call New Jersey the Garden State because its senior senator is a shrinking violet. Though no one identifies Robert Torricelli with any particular issues, he seems to be the first one to comment on any subject. He is a strong partisan -- the flashy senator was the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he raked in the cash for the 2000 elections. (See the American Prospect's "The Adventures of . . . Money Man!") Nevertheless, Torricelli is unpredictable. He recently extolled attorney general nominee John Aschroft and said he'd probably win confirmation, only to backpedal, claiming, "I didn't say I was going to vote for him."

Torricelli is leaving the Judiciary Committee, making life considerably easier for Ranking Democrat Pat Leahy. Instead, he's moving onto Finance -- causing some progressives to stock up on Tums. Torricelli's media magnetism may serve Democrats well when he's on their page. Says congressional expert Burdett Loomis, "You can't not pay attention to him -- so I think there is a role of articulation there."


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Hillary Clinton

Bad Cop, Grassroots Cultivator


For obvious reasons, New York Senator Hillary Clinton is likely to be the most attention-gabbing freshman senator in history. Says one Senate staffer, it's impossible to make the press cover anything, but they want to cover Hillary Clinton. This could be Clinton's strength or her weakness.

If she is careful, Clinton could use her instant media access to help frame issues for the public. And key liberal interest groups are already wrapped around her little finger. On the other hand, Clinton may get lots of unwanted public attention. In fact, she's already suffered from the recent furor over her book deal. And Clinton is as unpopular with conservatives as she is beloved by many liberals (accusing folks of participating in a "vast right-wing conspiracy" is hardly endearing). So like Kennedy, Clinton will probably have a limited sphere of influence.

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