THE PLANK FEBRUARY 3, 2009
Jon, your Tom Daschle defense over on The Treatment ("I think [Daschle] is trustworthy, based on what I know," you concluded) makes perfect sense -- if the Daschle affair were taking place in a vacuum, or a period of prosperity. But it isn't. And the way that his behavior, even if unintentional, feathers in with the year's narrative of a cast of bumbling, gee-I-didn't-know-what-I-was-doing-was-hurtful business execs destroying the economy makes his nomination a huge P.R. disaster. He may be blameless before St. Peter, but his relationship to the political moment dooms him.
There's no clearer illustration of the Daschle problem than today's Washington Post op-ed page. On the bottom of the page, Richard Cohen bewails Daschle and other perceived Obama failures. To the left of his column, Eugene Robinson launches into a rant -- unrelated to Daschle -- titled "Idiots of the Universe":
Sen. Claire McCaskill's righteous verdict
on shameless, clueless, bonus-grubbing executives should be carved on
the tombstone of the whole "Masters of the Universe" ethos that brought
us to this moment of dire economic peril: "These people are idiots. ... What planet are these people on? What could they be thinking
Daschle's defense of himself, of course, is that greed or malevolence didn't motivate his tax error; thoughtlessness did. "It was completely inadvertent," he explained at a press conference yesterday. "They were disappointing mistakes, but it is clear that they were not
purposeful mistakes," added Senator Max Baucus.
But thoughtlessness among the wealthy is a bona fide sin these days. Maybe Daschle doesn't deserve the "shameless" label Gene Robinson applies to villainous executives, but he deserves the "clueless" and maybe (depending on what you think of the way he relentlessly monetized his ex-senator status) the bonus-grubbing one, too. Do you think that when the failing big-auto CEOs flew to their bailout hearings on expensive private jets, it was a "purposeful mistake"? No! It was inadvertent; it was carelessness. It was about growing too cozy in one's Master of the Universe status to think very hard about whether you need a private jet or a private limo, or how to keep things above-board if you use one. It was about growing too lazy to trouble yourself much over the ethics your dealings with money in general, like Jon has in his fastidious Disclosure Statement. We just can't afford to excuse this kind of careless attitude among our Big Machers anymore.
"Performance czar" Nancy Killefer's withdrawal from the Obama administration today over tax troubles doesn't help Daschle; it hurts him, by suggesting that tax problems can be a disqualifier. I think Obama probably ought to abandon Daschle, despite Daschle's admirable views on healthcare, to send a message about the zero-tolerance attitude the administration takes towards financial carelessness, be it big or small.
I guess my only question is: Can somebody besides Daschle do the incredibly important Health and Human Services job nearly as well as he could? I suspect so. It's a big country. On the other hand, it's worth reading this great enumeration of all the Daschle men already sprinkled throughout Obama's new administration:
"The fact that he has eyes and ears in the White House, rather than way
down in the HHS bureaucracy, is really an advantage," [political scientist Ross] Baker said. He
likened Daschle's sphere of influence to the broad power that Henry
Kissinger held as secretary of state in the Nixon administration.