Down Goes Daschle! Down Goes Daschle! Down Goes Daschle!

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 4, 2009

At last, Barack Obama meets resistance.

He did not meet it when Tim Geithner faced his tax problems. Despite the seriousness of those problems and despite the fact that they would have sunk the nominations of any other candidates for appointed office — especially if those candidates were Republicans — Geithner was confirmed because of the general belief in his indispensability and a commensurate belief that the current economic downturn required the quick confirmation of a Treasury Secretary and a swift response to the recession.

He did not meet it when Eric Holder was nominated for Attorney-General. Despite the many disqualifying factors in Holder’s resume, there simply was not enough willpower on the part of Senate Republicans to deny Holder confirmation.

He did not meet it when his transition team and Administration blatantly backtracked on the promise not to have any lobbyists in the Obama Administration. To be sure, there were some who took on the President and his team for breaking their promise and making use of lobbyist expertise; and to be sure, people like me always thought that the lobbyist-hating was a bit too much to take and that there was nothing inherently wrong in appointing at least some lobbyists to positions in the White House. But the fact of the matter is that any other President — and yes, again, especially if that President was a Republican — would have been pilloried like no one’s business for having opened the White House door to lobbyists after swearing up and down that he wouldn’t, and so, comparatively speaking, Barack Obama got away with breaking his promise on this score.

He did not meet it despite the fact that it has become clear that the Administration’s commitment to legislative transparency and making the substance and details of legislation available to the public are just words.

But at long last, with the failed candidacy of Tom Daschle for Secretary of Health and Human Services, and for Director of the White House Office of Health Policy, Barack Obama has met resistance. Of course, the way was paved for Daschle’s fall with the withdrawal of Nancy Killefer as the selection for the government’s chief performance officer. Killefer had her own tax problems, which amounted to just under $970, but that tax delinquency was enough for her to come to the conclusion that she was not the right person to serve the Obama Administration. Given that Tom Daschle’s tax delinquency was over $100,000, Nancy Killefer’s decision to withdraw from government service meant that there likely wasn’t a sand castle’s chance in an earthquake that Tom Daschle could push on to confirmation, and that even if he could, it would come at a terrible cost to the credibility of the Obama Administration.

So, exeunt Daschle, and thank goodness that at long last, a tax cheatin’ heart is not rewarded with the chance to make policy at the highest levels of government. But why did it have to come to this? Neither Daschle, nor Tim Geithner should ever have been seriously considered after their tax problems came to light and as has increasingly become clear — between the Daschle, Geithner and Nancy Killefer debacles and with the hiring of lobbyists after promises that they would play no role in his Administration — Barack Obama has done nothing and will likely do nothing to change the culture of Washington.

In addition to casting doubt on his commitment — such as it is — to change the culture of Washington, the failure of the Daschle nomination constitutes a huge loss to the Obama Administration in its quest to place health care policy under governmental control. Read about Daschle’s vast and extensive network throughout the Obama Administration and what Daschle planned on doing with that network, and one will readily see that the former Senate Democratic Leader was on track to wielding astonishing amounts of power as the HHS Secretary and as the President’s health care czar. I don’t know who the President could nominate as a suitable replacement in terms of power-playing skills. If it weren’t for his tax problems, Tom Daschle would have easily been on track to become the most powerful HHS Secretary the country had ever seen and could have used that power to affect policy on a whole host of issues. Now, the health care efforts of the Administration, once on track, are adrift thanks to Daschle’s withdrawal.

That may be just as well, by the way. The Obama Administration is bound and determined to push for a flawed SCHIP plan. It is bound and determined to push for ephemeral “savings” in health care despite the fact that the government is ill-suited to carry out such a mission and that as part of its failed enterprise, the Obama Administration — with and perhaps without Tom Daschle — will seek to ration health care. A Daschle-led health care reform effort would have led to the design and implementation of disastrously bad policy. Those who oppose such a policy will have to fight to show how and why the Obama Administration’s philosophy on health care reform is wanting. That means a debate on the particular of health care policy, one that will have to be engaged in by defenders of the free market with energy, intelligence and vigor. But as part and parcel of the effort to push back against the Obama Administration’s ill-considered policy initiatives, it behooves the loyal opposition to show that White House reports and breathless media agreements to the contrary notwithstanding, the Obama Administration does not hold a monopoly on virtue, righteousness and wisdom.

As such, inadvertent as it may have been, the contretemps over Tom Daschle represents a teaching moment for the public. We have learned that despite its messianic rhetoric and reception, the Obama Administration is just as crass, just as cynical, just as calculating as any other political operation in Washington. We learn that Barack Obama is just like any other politician: willing to sacrifice promises of change to the greatest degree allowed by the political system for the appointment of people who can help bring about his policy goals. We learn that Team Obama, once considered a mighty, surefooted and formidable Presidential campaign, transition staff and now, White House, has suddenly lost the ability to vet, the ability to keep to consistent arguments concerning ethical standards for its members, the ability to inspire with examples as well as with words.

Slowly but surely, the scales are falling from our eyes when it comes to taking the measure of the Obama Administration. We realize that its members are not ten feet tall. And along with that, we realize that its policies have not been handed down from Sinai. The Obama Administration’s missteps have reminded us that the President and his minions are human. Human beings make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes are found in the policies an Administration tries to implement. And that means that however charming the President, however tough and ruthless the staff and Cabinet around him, we ought to question those policies, argue against what we find to be wrong, and feel liberated to offer policy alternatives of our own.

When he got chosen to be the HHS Secretary and the White House’s health czar, Tom Daschle must have felt empowered to implement his vision of health care reform. By his withdrawal, and by what that withdrawal has signified about the Obama Administration, perhaps he has empowered us, after being on the political defensive for so long, to advance our views on what health care reform ought to look like.

Tom Daschle’s defenders argued that he was and is a great public servant. By his example, he may have accidentally proven them right.

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