WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Events in Washington this week remind me of that wonderful scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy and her friends -- after a long, adventurous journey -- stand cowering fearfully before the great and powerful Oz to whom they have come for help. The Wizard, Dorothy and her friends believe, is a great and benevolent leader with the power to grant every wish. They simply need to follow the road and pay him homage, and their wishes will be granted.
But as the group of favor-seekers stands petrified before the fire-breathing, all-powerful Wizard and his threats, Toto breaks free from Dorothy and pulls back the control booth curtain, exposing a bumbling old man who created a frightening and intimidating image to bolster his self worth and achieve power and riches.
Ever since Jumping Jimmy Jeffords deserted his Republican family last May, the Washington media have treated Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota as the Great and Powerful Oz. The image Daschle cultivated, with the help of a sympathetic media, was a sweet, soft-spoken, humble leader.
But this week, the curtain was pulled back on Tom Daschle, and a bitter partisan, bully and man who puts politics above everything was exposed. This, many of us already knew. Like the Wizard who wanted to deny the Tin Man his heart and the Scarecrow his brain, Daschle will deny Americans tax relief and keep the economy in recession if it will keep him in the majority.
In his first major 2002 speech, the Senate leader called for a "return to fiscal responsibility" and declared, "No more living beyond our means... no more borrow-and-spend and piling up mountains of debt to leave our children and grandchildren."
But when it comes to wasteful spending, Daschle has earned a lifetime rating of 11 percent from Citizens Against Government Waste and was named their "Porker of the Month" last December. None of that fazes Daschle, who with a straight face said that when it comes to the recession, "the question is not who is to blame" -- and exactly 44 words later, blamed the recession on Republicans for choosing "exactly the wrong solution." The "wrong solution," he claims, is President Bush's $1.3 billion tax cut plan, for which 12 Senate Democrats voted.
According to Daschle, "Not only did the tax cut fail to prevent a recession, as its supporters said it would, it probably made the recession worse." So what is Daschle really saying? I asked Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott that question this week on my radio show. "If you translate what Daschle said and what it really means," Lott explained, "he is really saying, 'Look, we don't want any permanent tax relief, we want to spend more money, and, by the way, we either want to raise taxes or undo the tax cut that 12 Senate Democrats voted for.'"
Daschle can't attack the president on foreign policy or the war effort, and with the passage of the education bill, that issue is off-limits. But with a narrow majority to preserve in upcoming elections, he needs an issue on which his colleagues can run. So rather than pass an economic stimulus plan before Congress recessed, Daschle stalled and obfuscated to keep the economy from improving. Thus he can blame a slow economy on the tax package and threaten to scale back tax cuts.
It didn't take the president long to declare such a move would happen only "over my dead body."
Even Daschle's fellow Democrats followed the president's lead. "My view is we ought to stay the course," said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of 12 Democrats to vote for the tax package. She explained that "over a trillion dollars of that tax cut has not yet gone into effect," and, "I don't think it worsens the recession at all."
Sen Zell Miller of Georgia had less patience for his leader's ridiculous assessment. "Maybe it's at a level my brain can't reach," Miller suggested. "How do you have as one of your highest priorities to re-elect the moderate Democrats from South Dakota, Montana and Missouri on one hand, then on the other hand blame them for voting for a tax cut that he maintains has created this recession? Hello?"
Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan's spokesman said she "would be supportive of allowing the tax cuts they voted for to keep going."
In our radio interview, Lott explained, "the Democrats seem to be caught in a, sort of, leadership warp. They spent so much time over the past eight years trying to block Republican initiatives that they seem to not be able to understand what they need to do to provide leadership."
Lott said that under Daschle, recently dubbed, "Dr. No," the Senate has become a "sinkhole of obstructionism and inactivity." Daschle's "shrill attacks on the president" have set a "negative tone" for 2002. Much work needs to be done in the areas of national, economic and domestic security over the next year. Lott suggests Daschle should "lead, follow or get out of the way." But if Tom Daschle keeps leading as he has, American voters will tell his Democratic colleagues seeking re-election this year, "There's no place like home."