The Battle Back Home

Dick Cheney was on the line, and it wasn't to chitchat. The vice president rarely calls the Senate leader--a Democrat he dismisses as an "obstructionist"--so Tom Daschle knew the topic was important when he hurried into his Capitol office. What he heard was a plea, and a warning. The Senate will soon launch hearings on why we weren't prepared for, and warned about, September 11. The intelligence committee will study the matter, but mostly behind closed doors. Cheney was calling to pre-emptively protest public hearings by other committees. If the Democrats insisted, Bush administration officials might say they're too busy running the war on terrorism to show up. Press the issue, Cheney implied, and you risk being accused of interfering with the mission. Daschle was noncommittal and, after the call, unmoved. "Intelligence is just a piece of it," he said. "People need to know what happened."

As the president rehearsed his laboriously crafted State of the Union address last week, this was the State of the Capital: on the verge of open hostilities. President George W. Bush's standing in the polls remained remarkably high, thanks to his handling of the war. The speech was designed to highlight his commander's role, and his costly (and probably popular) battle plans at home and abroad. But his Republican Party isn't as well liked as he is. War aside, Congress and the country remain sharply divided. At a time of recession, when government aid is back in fashion and "free market" answers look shaky in an Enron-ized world, Democrats are gathering the will to fight Bush on a host of domestic issues.

That puts the focus squarely on Daschle, who controls--barely--the only part of the capital in Democratic hands. In an interview, he sketched his agenda. Seeking revisions in Bush's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut isn't part of it. Daschle was clobbered by some of his own colleagues for suggesting last month that the measure (which 12 of them voted for) was excessive. Now he makes it clear he won't attempt to change it this year. He was noncommittal on Bush's request for a $48 billion increase in defense spending. But Daschle's Democrats will fight for a universal, feder-al prescription-drug plan--not the narrower one Bush will propose. With John McCain, they will push the soft-money ban the White House loathes. They will press for more education spending than Bush wants, and refuse to accept further income-tax cuts--citing Alan Green-span's declaration that more "stimulus" isn't needed right now. Democrats won't insist that the government balance its books this year. But they'll cry havoc about the risk that ballooning deficits pose to Social Security and Medicare. "How is the president going to pay for what he wants to do?" Daschle asks. "Who pays?"

It's a tough hand to play: decrying deficits is rarely a way to win elections. And the Bush White House isn't inclined to go easy on him. It and its allies are dropping daisy cutters--including ads in Daschle's home state of South Dakota--portraying him as a power-hungry Machiavelli of the Plains. GOP consultant Frank Luntz suggested in a memo that candidates attack "Daschle Democrats." An ad by a conservative group compared him to Saddam Hussein. GOP Senate Leader Trent Lott, normally a collegial soul, accused him of wanting to "Daschle-ize" the budget with tax hikes.

Campaigning in South Carolina for a Senate candidate last week, the soft-spoken Daschle hardly seemed demonic. A career politician and a master of inside maneuver--and, like Bush, a dedicated jogger--he has a history of winning narrow victories with doggedness and patience. He's also among, if not the most active of, the many Senate Democrats eying a presidential run, saying that he's keeping the door open "just barely." In the meantime he oversees every detail of his party's drive to increase its 50-49-1 semi-majority. At a fund-raising dinner for Judge Alex Sanders at the zoological gardens in Columbia, he noted the torch-lit paths, which made the place look like the set of "Survivor." "I'm the last guy on the island," he said, and seemed happy at the thought.