Thanks, Tom Daschle

Maybe the would-be health czar's fall from grace will remind President Obama to keep his campaign promises about cleaning up Washington.

By Joan Walsh

Published February 3, 2009 8:27PM (EST)

I was ready to jump on Tom Daschle with both feet on Sunday. While starting my 2008 taxes, I watched the Sunday chat shows, and the idea that President Obama would now have two mega-rich guys in his Cabinet who couldn't be bothered to get their tax bills right (Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was confirmed anyway), well, it was galling. (And that was before I heard about the tax problems of Nancy Killefer, Obama's chief performance officer nominee.) Then I read Glenn Greenwald's scathing Sunday post on the way Daschle and his wife, Linda, have cashed in on their public service by "feeding at the Beltway trough," and I felt like another anti-Daschle post on Salon would be bullying. Greenwald gave Daschle the licking he deserved; Daschle finally did the right thing and withdrew his nomination today.

Let's hope this is a lesson for President Obama: He needs to keep his campaign promises. I'm thrilled about closing Guantánamo, lifting the gag rule, signing the Lilly Ledbetter law, all the executive orders he signed on ethics, openness and accountability. But Obama promised to clean up Washington, and the Daschle pick bothered me, especially when his tax problems were revealed. There's something intolerable about his forgetting to pay taxes on his limousine. It's like he feels a car and chauffeur are entitlements, not forms of compensation by his wealthy clients. It must have been so bewildering to Daschle, as if the government had decided to tax the air we breathe, or the love of our families! My limousine? My God, who knew?

Maybe more disturbing was what Greenwald on Sunday, and the New York Times editorial today, singled out in Daschle's background: Daschle's ability to move "cozily between government and industry" actually made him a dubious choice, not a brilliant one, to overhaul our broken healthcare and insurance system. And it's possible that growing questions about those ties are the real motive for Daschle's withdrawal. Although he was not a registered lobbyist (unlike William Lynn, the Raytheon lobbyist for whom Obama broke his "no lobbyist" pledge to appoint to a Defense Department post), Daschle was certain to face scrutiny of what he did to earn millions for Alston & Bird, a law and lobbying firm, InterMedia Advisors, the private equity group that paid for his car and driver; as well as the health insurers and other medical industry firms that paid him for his time since his 2004 defeat.

While his wife's work as a paid lobbyist might not have been fair game for confirmation scrutiny, together the Daschles represented the kind of self-dealing power couple the Obama movement seemed to promise to sweep aside in Washington. The howls of sadness from the Senate and the tributes from Obama today, in the wake of Daschle's stepping aside, just make the situation look worse for the Democrats, frankly.

A related thought: Did anyone understand David Brooks' column today? It might have been clever. It might have applied to Daschle. It might have been saying that the rich don't run the country in the same way anymore, their assumptions about proper compensation and the perks of power are inoperative now, and that's a good thing. But I don't think that's what Brooks was saying. I think Brooks was saying sanctimonious, Puritanical Democrats in D.C.'s Ward 3, the ward of comfortable permanent government types, run the show now, and the rich have to hide, not flaunt their wealth -- and that's a bad thing. I think what Brooks was saying was cluelessness dressed up to look clever, Maureen Dowd's specialty (but Brooks is still no Maureen Dowd as a writer). Brooks can mock, but he and Daschle (and Dowd) would be wise to pay attention to the fundamental realignment of American political and social values that is shifting the ground beneath all of us, thanks to the economic collapse and the role both parties played in rigging the game on behalf of business leaders who've failed the country.

Someone needs to rewrite the rules of wealth and fairness in this country, and if it's not Obama, it will be someone else. I never thought candidate Obama entirely understood the economic and political anger and populism his campaign tapped into, but he's smart enough to see it now, and it's time he got out in front of it. There has been a deliberate transfer of wealth, from the middle and working classes and the poor to the very wealthy, in the last 30 years, and many Democrats decided along the way, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But the voters are catching on. As people lose their jobs and watch the value of their retirement funds and their homes crumble, there's not going to be a lot of sympathy and fellow feeling for guys who cashed in on their time in the Senate and forgot to pay taxes on their limo. Obama can do better, and he ought to, starting now.



Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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