The South Dakota showdown of 2004 — from the inside

How can someone write an objective account of one of the most important Senate elections of recent times if he also worked for the winning campaign? An unabashed conservative, Jon Lauck was not only a research and debate consultant for then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) in his 2004 bid against then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D); he also actively supported Thune’s unsuccessful Senate bid in 2002. He then joined Thune’s staff after the Senate victory before joining the history faculty at South Dakota State University.

Indeed, this author is hardly your typical political scribe. He compares himself to such eminent historians as Thucydides, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore H. White, and claims he has invented a new subset of historical analysis in his book. He also sees parallels in the Senate race he chronicles to the historic 1858 Lincoln-Douglas contest.

To do so must require an ego the size of Mount Rushmore, not to mention formidable reporting and literary skills.

Lauck is clearly willing to endure howls of outrage from fellow academics by purporting to write an unbiased book when he obviously favors one of the candidates. Lauck will not endear himself to historians by quoting conservative historian Leo Ribuffo that the “tendency toward glib moralizing from a left liberal or radical perspective has affected American historical writing for the worse.”

Nevertheless, Lauck pulls off his audacious task by producing a book that is generally even-handed, meticulously researched and historically illuminating.

For my part, I’m willing to let historians fight among themselves over Lauck’s book while I savor his engrossing account of the hard-fought Daschle-Thune face-off, which The New York Times called “the other big race of 2004” after the presidential election.  

Lauck accurately places the Daschle-Thune battle in a historical context of the post-Reagan era, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in the midst of the greatest projection of American military power since Vietnam.

“The 2004 South Dakota Senate race was fought over the scarred battlefields left by the 1960s and the Reagan revolution, with Daschle defending a remnant of the old order while Thune carried the banner of Reaganism,” he writes.

His detailed description of the two candidates’ personal and political background and their parallel struggles to achieve power makes for fascinating reading. Daschle, who became majority leader in 2001 when Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP, and then minority leader again when Republicans regained the majority in January 2002, was handicapped by his obligation to his Senate conference, Lauck writes.

As Lauck sees it, Daschle’s failure to press fellow Democrats to support the Bush administration’s long-stalled 2003 energy bill, including a provision boosting the use of the corn-based ethanol fuel additive that was so important to South Dakota farmers, set the stage for the 2004 battle with Thune.

Daschle “faced a difficult choice,” Lauck writes. “He could serve as the partisan leader of the Senate Democrats, thrust and parry with [Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)] and serve as the loyal opposition to President Bush in an age of partisan bickering, or he could fully represent his state’s interests. But he could not do both.”

As a result, Thune was able to criticize “Daschle for serving incompatible masters,” and portray him, as Frist did when he came to South Dakota to campaign for Thune, as a partisan obstructionist and political heir to liberal icon and former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

After a bitter campaign that was the most expensive congressional race per capita in the nation’s history, Thune defeated Daschle by 51-49 percent, with a mere 4,508 votes making the difference. Daschle took his place in history beside former Speaker Tom Foley (D-Wash.), who in 1994 became the first Speaker to lose his reelection bid since 1862.

The book’s color aside, however, Lauck suffers from a tendency to overreach. He pronounces Thune’s election a historic turning point akin to Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, and shows his conservative colors by repeatedly charging the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader of biased pro-Daschle reporting. But his book is helpful to anyone seeking to understand the political calculus of modern American politics.

Indeed, in defending himself against charges that his active support for Thune undermines his book, Lauck argues that “participatory history” has its advantages.

“It is a fine thing for historians and other academics to have some skin in the game,” he writes. “They should enter the fray, say their piece and record what they have seen before memories fade.”

 
ABOUT THE BOOK
Daschle vs. Thune: Anatomy of a High-Plains Senate Race
By Jon K. Lauck
University of Oklahoma Press, 2007
326 pages, $24.95