Lesson No. 1 from the Tom Daschle affair is that Washington is completely clueless. As early as Monday, it was pretty apparent that Daschle was going to have a hard time holding on due to the string of revelations about his taxes and cushy post-Senate life. It was also pretty apparent that the whole situation was enormously embarrassing and that a good deal of public anger was bubbling upwards about the prospect of yet another administration tax cheat being confirmed in his job.
Yet there was President Obama voicing his full support for Daschle, and a number of Daschle’s friends from the Senate stepping forward to declare that he was a man of enormous integrity (mind you, it was just reported that “for the second year in a row, the Senate Ethics Committee conducted no investigations that resulted in disciplinary actions”). According to The Hill, “Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) had tears in his eyes as he tried to speak to reporters on Tuesday afternoon. He said the former majority leader called him to give him a heads-up about the withdrawal, which Harkin did not believe was necessary. ‘I’m emotionally distraught,’ Harkin said. ‘I’m just too emotionally upset right now to talk about it’.”
Meanwhile, the Washington press corps, living in its own peculiar bubble, was virtually unanimous in predicting that despite the controversy Daschle would still be confirmed by an overwhelming margin.
Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post had a good column about this today:
Tom Daschle’s problem wasn’t that he didn’t pay his taxes. It was that he — along with those who vetted his nomination as health and human services secretary and many of his colleagues in the Senate — found it perfectly ordinary and acceptable that he would be able to cash in on his time in the Senate by earning more than $5 million over two years as a law-firm rainmaker, equity fundraiser, corporate director and luncheon speaker, all the while being driven around town in a chauffeured town car. Not exactly Cincinnatus returning to the plow.
For the American public, Daschle became the latest symbol of everything that is wrong with Washington — the influence-peddling and corner-cutting and sacrifice of the public good to private interest. Now that this system has let them down, and left them poorer and anxious about the future, people are angry about it and no longer willing to accept the corruption of the public process and the whole notion of public service…
The irony, of course, is that Barack Obama understood all this and tapped into Americans’ frustration as the central message of his “change” campaign. But even he, with only four years in Washington, failed to see the depth of the problem or anticipate the ferocity of the backlash.
Obama’s first mistake was to hand the keys of the transition office over to a crew made up almost exclusively of Washington insiders who — surprise! — have largely succeeded in restoring to power their friends from the Clinton administration. Worse still, he has fallen for the tired old Washington “wisdom” that the only way to get anything done is to concentrate even more power in an ever larger White House full of czars and councils and chiefs of staff who ostensibly are there to “coordinate” policy but invariably wind up making it, sapping the departments and agencies of whatever importance and energy and creativity they have left.