Republicans may be doubly blessed by their congressional showing on Tuesday. Not only do they regain control of the Senate, but the GOP sweep appears to have dimmed the political futures of both Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt.
While it now appears all but certain that Gephardt will step aside as Democratic leader in the House, a surprise shift may be brewing in the Senate, where Democratic leadership sources say that Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut has already begun calling colleagues, informing them that he will challenge Daschle for leadership should the South Dakotan pursue the minority leader slot.
“Those two have squared off before, and there’s a sense that we need a more viscerally partisan leader now that we’re in the minority,” says a Democratic Senate staffer. “In voice, in temperament, we probably need a change.”
Dodd had previously challenged Daschle for leadership of the Democrats and lost in a contentious race. And as the election day carnage was sifted over by Democrats, it was unclear if there would be other challengers to Daschle. Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid has served as Democratic Whip and would be in line to challenge for the leadership. “He can certainly be more aggressive in tone than Daschle, but I don’t know that he brings the whole package,” says the Democratic staffer. “Dodd has more of a national
profile. He’s what we need after this debacle.”
Not only is Daschle’s Senate leadership in doubt, his presidential aspirations took a serious hit, as well. On Wednesday morning there were already rumors on Capitol Hill that in the wake of the national embarrassment, Daschle’s book deal which he signed only months ago might be dead, particularly given that the book was intended to lay out his vision for the country leading into the 2004 Democratic presidential primary season. And the book might be dead because Daschle’s presidential hopes most likely slid off the cliff to boot.
“It really is a stunning reversal for the guy,” says a Republican Senator not up for re-election. “Watching him on Tuesday night, you could tell it was already sinking in.”
In the case of Gephardt, it’s less unclear what will happen. For months rumors of have swirled around Capitol Hill that he would step down as House Democratic leader should the party fail to regain control. That was in part due to his continued desire to make another run for president. Nancy Pelosi is poised to become the first woman leader in House history, and Democrats are already spinning the notion that her leadership will allow them to become the party they once were.
“She’s an unrepentant liberal, a vocal liberal,” says a Democratic House leadership staffer. “She opposes an attack on Iraq. There are a lot of us who think the party needs to become more visibly and vocally liberal. Moving to the center has gotten us into this mess. Why bother? Our base needs to be re-energized, and it’s the liberal wing of the party that can do that.”
But Gephardt’s presidential hopes have dimmed about as much as Daschle’s, which may lead him to step back a bit to reconsider his walking away from the leadership post that would continue to bring him national visibility.
“No one has made any promises or backroom deals about stepping aside or moving on,” said a Gephardt staffer last week, when asked about the boss’s thoughts. “He hasn’t made a decision and it’s his decision to make. No one, not Nancy Pelosi or Terry McAuliffe, is going to make it for him.”
But perhaps the American people did on Tuesday.