As a freshman senator, Steve Daines lives in a state of constant terror. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, wakes him with a fire extinguisher every morning. In the Senate cafeteria, Daines has to eat whatever Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, puts on his tray, like Coke with chili in it or even a worm. And whenever a senior senator yells "push-ups," Daines has to either do 20 or chug a beer.
He always does the push-ups. Maintaining his quiet dignity while staying in the good graces of his colleagues is no easy feat. And manning his position at the bottom of the Republican totem pole has occasionally required him to compromise.
It happened last month, when he was presiding over the Senate confirmation hearings for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and McConnell invoked the obscure Senate Rule 19 to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. Rule 19 forbids senators from impugning the character of other senators on the floor. Warren had quoted a letter that Coretta Scott King wrote in 1986, in which the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. complained that Sessions had the wrong temperament for the judiciary.
Given that they were debating Sessions' fitness for office, it seemed odd to forbid senators from questioning Sessions' character. But Daines dutifully gaveled down Warren, looking like a man with a shake who had just been handed an important baby. He was not about to argue with the majority leader over a point of parliamentary procedure.
But then he had to come home. Congress went into recess, and Daines left the room he shares with Tom "The Bomb" Cotton, R-Arkansas, in the Senate dormitory to return to Montana. Traditionally, members use this recess to talk to their constituents about what's going on in Washington. Daines was scheduled to address the state Legislature on Tuesday of last week, but he canceled his appearance at the last minute.
Maybe it had to do with the hundreds of protesters who gathered at the capitol to boo him. Demonstrators traveled to Helena to express their objections to his treatment of Warren, his vote to confirm Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—after the heiress and her family contributed $48,000 to his campaign—and the potential rollback of the Affordable Care Act, which threatens to leave thousands of Montanans without health insurance.
Daines added to this list of grievances by rescheduling his capitol appearance for the next day. His office issued a statement saying that Daines "welcomes the opinions of everyone from the Treasure State," continuing the bland refusal to address concrete ideas that has been the hallmark of its communications strategy. The next day, the senator took to Twitter. "Montanans can do a better job than D.C. bureaucrats who've never driven a pick-up and have a hard time finding Montana on a map," he wrote.
First of all, I drive a pickup, and I can tell you I am not qualified to govern anything. Second, Daines picked an odd moment to pander to Montanans. He had just flown in from Washington and contorted his schedule to avoid them. It was probably not the time to present himself as a salt-of-the-earth type vexed by D.C. bureaucrats. But he kept at it. The next day, he tweeted a cellphone video from Big Sandy. "Greetings from Big Sandy, Montana," he said, gesturing to a sheet of ice as wind blew across the microphone. "Jon Tester's hometown—getting all over Montana, on our way to Havre."
Daines was unable to visit his own hometown of Nilbog, owing to the phase of the moon. He gets points for audacity, however, by acting as though he was traveling the state's back roads in search of constituent opinions just 48 hours after he stood up hundreds of constituents in Helena.
Another kind of politician might have treated those protesters as an audience. Daines is not that kind. He is a party man, as his recent behavior has amply demonstrated, and that's his prerogative. It's a rare freshman senator who would contradict his majority leader's interpretation of Senate rules or buck his party on cabinet confirmations. But he should not pretend to be some rootin' tootin' country boy fed up with Washington, D.C.
He's done too much tooting and not enough rooting for my taste. Montanans know the difference between driving a pickup and protecting federal lands, between stopping for a picture in Big Sandy and actually engaging with constituents. Daines is a senator now, and he has to serve more than one master. We can't blame him for toeing the party line. But he shouldn't pretend he's doing anything else. Even in Big Sandy, they've seen that act before.
Dan Brooks write about people, politics, culture and playing to the hayseeds at combatblog.net.