Last December, the conservative Family Research Council ran an ad on South Dakota TV stations juxtaposing pictures of Saddam Hussein and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The implication was that by opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Daschle was aiding and abetting America’s worst enemy.

The ad marked the nadir of the continuing Republican effort to smear Daschle as the bill-swatting “Dr. No” of the Democratic Party. But in truth, as an obstructionist, Daschle is at best mediocre. When it comes to opposing the GOP agenda, what he really is — and this is no benefit to the Democratic Party — is a pushover.

While the press and liberal establishment heap adoring praise on the soft-spoken and eminently likable Majority Leader and buzz mounts about a 2004 White House bid, Daschle has allowed Republicans to walk all over Democrats on issue after issue and failed to press the Bush Administration on many of its most vulnerable positions.

When he should have been screaming bloody murder — over the tax cuts, over Bush’s ultra-conservative cabinet appointees, over Enron — he instead sat back and played the genial bipartisan hand. Can there be any doubt that if roles were reversed and a narrowly elected Democratic President was pushing a left-wing agenda, Trent Lott would be bursting blood vessels and Rush Limbaugh would be convulsing in a conniption fit?

What the Democrats lost in last year’s $1.35 trillion tax cut was more than just a small political battle, it was practically the whole war. The fiscally irresponsible tax cuts pushed through by the GOP will effectively cripple government for perhaps a generation to come.

What’s so frustrating is that the tax cut battle should have been an easy fight to win. The cuts had little popular support and were based on patently flawed logic. The GOP knowingly misled the American people about the true size of the surplus and worked assiduously to hide the fact that 38 percent of the tax benefits would go to the richest one percent of Americans. Under strong leadership, the Democrats could have, and should have, raised holy hell. All they had to do was speak up coherently. Instead, under Daschle, they wimped out in acquiescence.

Then there’s the matter of Bush’s right-wing cabinet appointments. The Democrats let conservative heroes John Ashcroft, Gale Norton, and Ted Olson slide into office on a wave of bogus bipartisanship. Trent Lott would have killed similarly controversial Clinton nominations before their names could be whispered on the Senate floor. As Democratic leader in the house that confirmed the appointments, Daschle ought to be held personally responsible for his party’s ineffectiveness.

Unlike their counterparts across the aisle, Daschle’s Democrats consistently cower from a fight. Last spring, for example, the Democrats could have pounced on Bush advisor Karl Rove for holding exclusive meetings with executives of companies in which he held stock. Instead, they gave Rove a virtual free ride. As leader of the party, it’s Daschle’s duty to lead — or at least delegate — political assaults on deserving members of the GOP. He has failed miserably in that capacity.

To his credit, Daschle has come through with several small victories. Most recently, Senate Democrats succeeded in torpedoing the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering. And of course there was Daschle’s successful courting of Jim Jeffords. Daschle has also managed to temporarily fend off drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was able to block White House versions of the airport security and economic stimulus bills. But these weren’t exactly big wins. Though the Democrats are patting themselves on the back for inserting less than $3 billion of unemployment benefits into the package, the economic stimulus bill still doles out a whopping $43 billion to business.

In all fairness to Daschle, Democratic pusillanimity predates his rise to Majority Leader. As Paul Glastris pointed out in the Washington Monthly’s March cover article, Gore lost the 2000 election because his team in Florida couldn’t summon the same thuggish chutzpah of the conservative myrmidons who beset the Dade county courthouse demanding –and winning — an end to the recount.

The 2004 Democratic nominee will be running against what’s turned out to be perhaps the most politically savvy administration ever. Bush makes few political errors and possesses a keen sense of his opponents’ weaknesses. He’s waged a popular and successful war and has overseen what appears to be a quick economic rebound. His reward has been sky-high approval ratings.

Of course, approval ratings will drop and Bush will inevitably make some missteps over the next two years, but right now it’s looking as if the Democrats will be sending a lamb to the slaughter in 2004. Their only chance is to find a candidate who can draw a stark contrast to Bush by standing up and vigorously challenging the most unpopular elements of his agenda. Unfortunately, none of the names currently being batted around as Democratic candidates — and least of all Tom Daschle — seem up to the task.

Joshua Foer is a sophomore in Silliman College. His columns will appear on alternate Thursdays.