Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) served as Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003 and then Minority Leader from 2003 to 2005. He was an early confidant to Barack Obama when he arrived in Washington as a Senator in 2005. When Obama turned to him for advice on whether to run for president, Daschle encouraged him to do it.
Daschle was nominated to be Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, but he withdrew his nomination after it was revealed that he had failed to pay more than $128,000 in taxes. He became a key adviser to the White House on the Affordable Care Act.
Daschle says Obama went "to great lengths to find bipartisan consensus" for health care reform, but as he explains in the following interview, opposition from "the far right" made Republican support for the bill -- and ultimately, the Obama agenda -- all but impossible. Nearly eight years later, he says, Washington has still not recovered.
"This dysfunction we see in Washington is not just by accident; it's actually by design. It's exactly what some of these members are looking for. It's what their agenda is all about. The more they can stop, the more successful they think they are. And they've been very successful."
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE's Michael Kirk on June 13, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
I think everybody aspires to that. I shouldn't say everybody. A lot of people in this country aspire to this notion that we are a unique country; that we are a diverse country; that we are a tolerant country. He played to the very aspirations of a lot of people, especially people in my party, people who really get into this business because that's what we want to achieve. Even though we haven't accomplished it all, that's where we want to be at the end of the day.
There's a trite expression that hope springs eternal. Hope sprung eternal at that time. There was the hope that we could do this. In fact, that was a big word surrounding his entire campaign, hope. I think there will always be that hope. There will always be that belief that somebody can lead us and inspire us and generally bring us to a place that we have yet to accomplish.
I can recall very vividly. I was at that time stumping as a surrogate all over the country for the candidate. It was a startling decision on McCain's part. I understand it wasn't his first choice, but at the moment it sounded like an absolutely ingenious choice. She was a woman; she was articulate; she was attractive; she had an edge. And I recall trying to convince people all over the country we can still win this election, even though John McCain had chosen this masterful candidate as a vice presidential candidate. Not knowing really her preparedness for office, her ability to in some ways just completely melt down over the course of the campaign, she looked like a brilliant choice at the beginning.
The far right has done an enormously successful job in poisoning the well when it comes to feelings toward government, feelings toward collective action, feelings toward public policy generally. The more they can create dysfunction, the more they can stop government from moving along in its traditional path, the happier and the more successful they are. She was one of the first personalities to personify that, to articulate it, to address it in a way that resonated with a large percentage of American voters.
I feel she is just a continuation. I go back, when I was growing up, to the John Birch Society, and there were a lot of people in the John Birch Society who are alive and well today, but they call themselves other names. They have different titles. They have different organizations. But their message, their motives, their agenda is very much the same. Sarah Palin would have been very comfortable in the John Birch Society in the 1950s and early '60s.
I didn't know anything about it, but I really wasn't surprised when I heard it. Keep in mind, there were a lot of Just-Say-Noers during the Clinton administration. There was a group in Washington that wanted him out of office, that impeached him in the House of Representatives under very questionable circumstances. I had to manage the impeachment trial in the Senate along with Trent Lott.
There have always been those who just couldn't tolerate a progressive president, an advocate of governmental action. This was in some ways a continuation of what I saw in the '90s, but I think even more visceral, even more personal, even more troubling in so many respects. Far more organized, far more well funded, and far more determined, learning the lessons that they learned in the '90s.
You could almost see the polarization. It was palpable. It was very, very real. It was just the beginning, but in some ways it could have been predicted long before that. It was a sense that there was very little opportunity for common ground. Not only was there an ideological divide, there was a tactical divide. There was the belief on the part of many in the conservative movement that they stand their ground, not find common ground. And the more they stood their ground, the more dysfunctional, the more polarized, the more confrontational the environment became.
It was very unusual. It was an extraordinary moment in many respects, because a president rarely comes to Capitol Hill. Usually it's for the State of the Union message. It may be for a speech now and then on an important moment, but for the most part, members of Congress come to the White House. I have come to the White House hundreds of times because that's just the way you did it. The president called the members to their respective positions in the Oval Office or in the Cabinet Room, and that's generally the venue for meeting with the president. This was unusual, almost unheard of.
I think to send the message. He did it because he really wanted to send the message: Look, I'm going to go the extra mile. I'm going to throw out past practice. I'm going to throw out the traditions we've normally relied upon, and I'm going to demonstrate by my actions how much I want to find the kind of opportunities for consensus and common ground that were so essential to his agenda.
Well, it's interesting. This president is very transparent. You can read his facial expressions quite easily, and over time that became even more of a prominent factor as you read his body language to determine just the degree of internal strife and frustration and sometimes anger he was experiencing. This was one of those cases. This was his baptism by fire. He went the extra mile, and he got rolled.
I have to give the far right enormous credit for what they were able to accomplish. They got nowhere initially when the legislation was introduced. But more and more, through the work of Frank Luntz and many others, they were able to create the image that there was this vast opposition, this strident opposition among the American people. They did it by disrupting town meetings. They did it by physically confronting members of Congress. They did it by orchestrating television and radio and newspaper ads. They did it across the board.
And they did it extremely effectively, almost in a matter of months, transforming the political landscape into one vastly different than what we started just a year before when the president was inaugurated.
The ultimate outcome was that members of Congress who were originally inclined to be supportive, especially on the Republican side, just as they were in the '90s with a very similar piece of legislation, were intimidated, were threatened, were accused of betrayal, and as a result almost unanimously decided that their political futures depended on the degree on the vehemence that they could express an opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
It surprised the president because he had gone to great lengths to find bipartisan consensus right out of the box. He was encouraged to do a single payer bill. Instead he did the Republican version of health reform from the '90s. He was encouraged to do a public option, which is a Medicare-for-all option. He thwarted that in large measure in the name of trying to maintain bipartisan support. All the way through he was getting advice from certain members of Congress that if he just held out that bipartisanship could actually prevail in spite of all this opposition. So they were stunned. They were disappointed. They were very, very concerned about the implications of all this in the summer.
Well, we had strategy sessions, yeah. We had a number of opportunities to think through just how to confront it, how to address it, and I give the president great credit. He was all over the country. He and his stalwart supporters were trying to push back, trying to set the record straight, trying to ensure that people could fully understand what this was really about. Frank Luntz used the term "government takeover," and it was awarded "Lie of the Year" that year by one of the groups that assess these kinds of things. So clearly they were successful in spite of their fabrications.
The risks are that you're going to continue to carry on the fight for years afterward, which is exactly what's happened. But I must say, I think the president gave bipartisan opportunity at every turn. He did everything possible to try to ensure that there was bipartisan support. He talked to certain Republican members for countless occasions, had them down to the White House, called them on the phone. He held out for this Gang of Six for a while, three Republicans, three Democrats. They couldn't produce. He did everything that one could and concluded that, if he was going to get this done, it was going to have to unfortunately involve Democrats alone. And that was the strategy they chose, knowing the risk.
I think it was very hard. It was an admission of failure, really, an admission that in spite of his best efforts, there was no way he could bring the Republicans along on something that looked so obvious when it all started. It looked as if everyone was for meaningful reform in health care. So for him to acknowledge that, in spite of his best efforts, not one Republican supported it hurt badly.
Well, if I recall, the Republicans picked up 61 seats in 2010, just a landslide election for Republicans. They had succeeded. The far right, with all of their money, all of their organizational effort, with their think tanks and their gurus and the intimidation that they spurred, plus the distorted campaign to misinform the American people, worked extremely well. The end of the day, they won, Democrats lost, and we're still paying the price.
That was more than a shellacking. This was an embarrassing collapse of the Democratic agenda in Congress, in large measure because of the extraordinary effectiveness of the effort on the other side.
They're strident, ideological, true believers. These are people that come to Congress with no expectation that they will pass anything. In fact, their whole goal is to stop everything, stop appropriations, stop on just about all fronts. This dysfunction we see in Washington is not just by accident; it's actually by design. It's exactly what some of these members are looking for. It's what their agenda is all about. The more they can stop, the more successful they think they are. And they've been very successful.
I think they have a sense of it. What I don't think they've fully calculated is whether this was controllable. I think for the most part they thought they could control it, that having these new Young Guns and these strident confrontationalists was a good thing, but that it could be controlled and they could guide them; they could direct them. Well, they've lost control. In large measure, the Young Guns today are running the House of Representatives. They're the ones who ousted [John] Boehner. They're the ones who ousted Cantor. They were the ones who really for the most part set the agenda right now, and they're the ones who really for the most part have now created the environment for the political election of 2016 and the presidential candidates that it wrought.
I think the early signs were some of the things that every Congress, regardless of philosophy, regardless of who controls, regardless of circumstances, must pass appropriations bills, increasing the debt limit. This is something you have to do. The faith and credit in the United States Treasury is at stake when you vote on this thing. It's amazing to me the degree of these very traditional pieces of legislation that were really on the verge of total collapse as the result of their orchestrated, united effort to stop them.
There was nothing in the White House that paralleled this. There was no precedent for this. There was always the belief that regardless of who was speaker, ultimately they would be able to bring their people in line. Nancy Pelosi did it. Tip O'Neill did it. Newt Gingrich even did it. There were people in the past that for whatever reason had issues with members of their caucuses. But at the end of the day they delivered.
In John Boehner's case, this was the first time that a speaker could not deliver. They would cut deals, and the poor speaker was left pleading with this caucus to come with him, and failed.
You could see the writing on the wall fairly early. You could see how frustrated he was. You could see the body language. You could see the rhetoric coming from the defiant members who took pride in defying their speaker and pride in the fact that they are really running the show. That was pretty evident early on.
I think the president certainly wanted that relationship. That's who he is. I mean, he is a person who enjoys personal relationships with people. They tried golfing. They tried different things to see if they could bond. And I think to a certain extent they did, but the president became increasingly frustrated by the speaker's inability to deliver.
It was a realization that the environment had changed dramatically, that it was beyond personalities, that we had created a monster. And this monster was virtually out of control and running the country in large measure.
I don't think the president ever gave up on it completely, but he certainly decided that if he was going to accomplish anything, he was going to have to take a lot more unilateral action. He was going to have to work with the Democrats and find innovative ways, unique ways to get things done. He had virtually come to the conclusion with Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and the team largely created by the far right that there was so little opportunity for common ground, he was myopic to think that there was anything that was ever going to change that.
I think what happened is that the Republicans were so determined and so confident, frankly, that the president would be a one-term experience that when it didn't happen and when he won fairly handily, that bubble popped; that balloon was gone. So they had to regroup. And as they tried to regroup, it was, "Now what?" And I think they came to the belief that, well, maybe on a couple of things we might find some sort of common ground. It's worth at least trying. That doesn't mean they were ever going to be in his corner, but at least they began to look for opportunities that might accomplish something.
In the early going it was a little bit like health care. Everybody thought there had to be a compromise. This was almost considered must-pass. We'd been at this for so long. There have been so many iterations, so many efforts, so many different work groups and rump groups and task forces, so this was an issue whose time was come, really. There was that belief that if we could just find bipartisan consensus, everybody giving a little bit, we could find adequate common ground to get the job done. That was the perception.
What they underestimated, again, is the far right and the incredible ability that they had to fund the effort to oppose immigration and to threaten those who supported it. Marco Rubio is maybe the best example of that. He was out there, one of the key leaders of it for a while. But he became more and more intimidated, more and more concerned about its implications for a presidential campaign and backed away almost entirely.
That happened over and over and over and over again. As a result, the same thing happened with health care. As with health care, virtually no Republicans could find the fortitude to get out there to be supportive in the end.
Well, it's got to be very hard. The antipathy directed toward him personally exceeds that of anything I've ever seen before. I mean, there was a lot of antipathy toward Bill Clinton; I saw that, too, and I'm sure toward George W. Bush on the other side. All presidents have to address it, have to experience it. But in this case it seemed so much more visceral, so much more palpable. That was a pervasive aspect of the relationship he had with Congress almost from the beginning.
I think it really affected him in one sense. He's criticized frequently for not continuing to reach out, for not continuing to try to build the relationship, build the trust, find ways to communicate and coordinate. And I think in part it was the president's probably simple human reaction to the antipathy he felt in a very personal and vindictive way. He probably thought life was too short; I'm going to do what I can do, and I'm going to accept the fact that the reality is, I'm not going to persuade these people; I'm not going to get them to like me. So I'm not going to even try, at some point, to persuade somebody that is as resolute in their determination not to like me as I've witnessed.
I think the Cruz narrative is simply an exaggeration of the narrative that began with this whole effort. You know, the narrative that we can up the ante over and over again, anti-government, anti-Congress, anti-Washington, anti-progression on any one of the issues. There was a strong feeling that the successful endeavors, the successful efforts made by members of Congress could be replicated in personal ways. So you saw people try to do what these Young Guns did in the House in a much more aggressive and visceral way in the Senate. And Ted Cruz led the effort in demonstrating how effective you can be in stopping everything.
Well, the filibuster's changed a lot, and that's unfortunate. We no longer require people to hold the floor. So you can just filibuster off the floor; you can say, "I'm just not going to allow this bill to come to the floor," and leaders now accept that. We also do something we call dual track, where you just set the bill aside rather than stay on it.
So things have changed. Lyndon Johnson had one filibuster in six years. In the last six years, there have been 422.
The impact is dysfunction. The impact is complete collapse of the legislative process. The impact is to make every member of the Senate potentially a dictator, a tyrant, somebody who can stop whatever -- a nomination, a bill, an amendment, legislative progress on almost anything. It can all stop simply because of the excessive use and abuse of the filibuster.
I think what's afoot is just a continuation of this philosophy that if you can stop the government from doing anything, you win. And they realize in many cases -- this goes back to another issue that we haven't talked about, which is the primary is now the more important of the two elections. In order to win your primary, you have to prove to those who share your point of view that you've done everything possible to live up to their expectations. Well, their expectations are, you're not going to let anything get done in Washington.
So to win the primary, to avoid a primary contest, you've got to go the extra mile to stop things from happening in Washington. That's what's going on. When you shut the government down, that's the ultimate demonstration that you've lived up to their expectations.
Eric Cantor is just the next in a growing line of Republicans who didn't see it coming, who understood this game had changed. But whether it was a Bob Bennett, a Dick Lugar, a Mike Castle -- you could go on down the line -- congressman from South Carolina, just a whole array of members who got primaried. They even, some people even call it, they use Dick Lugar as the verb now – you get Lugared. Well, Eric Cantor got Lugared because he didn't live up to the expectations of the primary voters.
And keep in mind, the primary has a very low voter turnout generally, so that enhances even more the capacity of a handful of well-financed donors who can orchestrate an effort to pick a candidate, to erect the challenge, and then ultimately to win. Eric Cantor found that out the hard way, and that's what goes on time and time again.
The very thought, the very fear that that could happen to you is a powerful motive to fall in line and to be as obstructionist as the next guy.
John Boehner is really facing the question, do I rely on Democrats to help me, or do I simply try to persuade the majority, almost the unanimity of my caucus? And not able to find unanimity within his caucus, the only other option then was to turn to the Democrats, which alone was political suicide in many cases for speakers. They don't want to rely on Democrats. Majorityism rules in the House. You don't rely on the minority to pass legislation any longer. It used to be that's the way you passed things; majorities and minorities worked together. That's no longer the case.
What happens is that once again he's reminded that he's no longer calling the shots. Once again he's reminded that at least for the constituency that matters to most Republicans, they won; he lost.
I think what he's thinking more than anything at that point is, how can I use the powers that I have as president through executive authority, through presidential affirmation of executive orders, how can I press the envelope and do the kinds of things that may not be ideal, but at least allow me to move the needle on issues I care deeply about?
So he does that. He acquires as much of an appreciation about what is possible in each one of his departments. He kind of prioritizes that. He makes the decision: I'm going to get out there. I'm going to get out across the country; I'm going to try to educate. But on the environment, on clean air, on a whole array of issues, on gay rights, civil rights, on voter rights, he does as much as he possibly can to take unilateral action.
We had occasional opportunities. I don't want to overstate my proximity to the president at that point. I worked with him occasionally, but mostly with his team.
What surprised the president was to learn how often this had actually been done among his predecessors. He's a piker compared to Franklin Roosevelt. He didn't hold a candle to Harry Truman. He doesn't even hold a candle to either of the Bush presidencies. I mean, he literally is not where they were in terms of the volume. But he got started late. I think if you take his last couple of years, things would probably have -- and if he had applied that all through his eight years, he would probably be ranked much higher. But he didn't start doing that until it became quite apparent that there was really no other option.
That man standing there was somebody who really wanted, first and foremost, to be true to himself, just to lay it out there. This was his last shot to define what it was he was trying to do, what he thinks he did, and what he'd like to do. And I think he did it in a powerful way for those of us who shared his aspirations, for those of us who really believe in the power of what government can do to improve the lives of most Americans. I mean, he did that, and he understood the repercussions; he understood the ramifications. But he did it anyway.
He was accused of, again, polarizing and energizing his base and not reaching out, not looking at things in a pragmatic way. Maybe [he was] too optimistic about what he could achieve or what he did achieve, too much spin, all of that. But I think at the end of the day he wanted to be true to himself, and that's exactly what he was.
There are moments when I get very inspired by this president. I mean, there are times when I'm frustrated, but for the most part he's one of the most brilliant orators that I think our country has experienced, at least in my lifetime. I think his oratory soars at times, and I'm sure it has the same effect on millions of others that it had on me. I said that's why I feel good about this man. That's why I worked in 2008 to help get him elected. That's why I look at these fights and think, you know, we will never completely succeed, but he's given us hope. And that was his aspiration at the very beginning.
Trump in the early days was probably the most underestimated potential political figure of my lifetime. I don't think anyone ever expected -- he seemed like a joke. He wasn't taken seriously. He was not even someone that I think advanced his own cause as effectively as he might have. But he was a strategist, and he understood that by putting his toe in the water in that way, he was just beginning. He was trying things; he was experimenting. He was trying to figure out how best do I maneuver to get to where I need to go? And ultimately he found the answer.
I think we've always assumed that our democracy was so solid, so impenetrable, so predictable, so strong that there was really no concern about its fragility. I think this is the most fragile our democracy has been, maybe in the last 50 years. I think it's very possible that we could lose the institutions of good governance over the course of the next two decades if the American people make the wrong choice.
I think that the effort by those who would destroy the basic premise of a democratic republic are winning, and I'm very concerned about its implications for the future.
I think the basic premise of democracy is simply representative government that reflects the vast majority of thinking and of hopes and aspirations of the American people. That isn't happening today. People are left out. People are excluded. People are frustrated as a result of that exclusion because a small oligarchy, a very small, powerful oligarchy has in large measure taken over.
For the most part, I think it's those on the far right. They've created think tanks. They've created organizations of all kinds, nonprofit, for-profit. They have taken over the Republican Party. They have enlisted a very effective coordinated effort to ensure that what we now experience continues for the foreseeable future.
Well, keep in mind the president began with very limited political and legislative experience. He was a state legislator. He was a United States senator for four years before he launched his campaign. And I think he felt, and he had a right to feel, that what he experienced in the state legislature in Illinois he could replicate in the country and that there was real hope. He meant, and he really, truly believed that he could bring about meaningful change in discourse and attitude in the politics of politicization.
He became enormously frustrated, enormously discouraged, enormously pessimistic about his prospects for doing just that over the course of his eight years. So while he started filled with hope and filled with this enormous desire and determination to do just that, he acknowledged defeat; he acknowledged his collapse, his inability to bring his country together. And that was deeply disappointing.