As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Daschle Post-Mortem

There's a pretty amusing old Tom Daschle ad going around, with him driving to work at the Capitol in his old Pontiac instead of "BMWs and limos," with the final line:

"It's too bad that the rest of Washington doesn't understand that a penny saved is a penny earned."

What's that old adage about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely?

Eventually, no matter the rhetoric to win votes in South Dakota, Tom Daschle became a DC insider. And because President Obama relied on DC insiders to implement an agenda of change, he got burned. The case is a textbook example of how Beltway privilege - which is also class privilege - is inevitably corrupting and ethically corrosive.

A classic rule of Washington's political culture -- that public service can lead to personal riches -- seemed to collide yesterday with the presidential promise that the time has come for a break with the past.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, whom President Obama once called "the original no-drama guy," suddenly was forced to step aside as the president's nominee for secretary of health and human services because of problematic ties to wealthy private interests.

It was a jarring twist to Daschle's 30-year career in Washington, one built on a reputation of integrity and decency. After losing his Senate seat while serving as that body's most powerful Democrat in 2004, he swiftly signed on as a special policy adviser to a 900-member law firm and pulled in a multimillion-dollar salary. It is a well-worn path, trod by dozens of ex-lawmakers in the past decade.

But some observing the debacle wondered if the capital's ways were changing. The story of how he fell in with the monied elite and out with the popular mood involves a longtime Democratic financier, Leo Hindery Jr., and his keen interest in currying influence with powerful politicians. The outcome caught many in Washington off guard.

"I think it's possible this is some sort of bridge between an old Washington and the new Washington," David Arkush of Congress Watch said of the initial backing of Daschle and the sudden reversal.

Somehow this is being spun as a consequence of Obama holding Daschle to too high of a standard with all this talk of ethics during the campaign, and not the fact that Daschle really is ethically compromised, as is his business partner Bob Dole. Not that Daschle's the worst offender, but he's just a symbol of a failed status quo that has pushed this country to the point of ruin:

Dole said the Democrat would be a valuable asset to the firm even though Congress is run by the GOP these days. "He's got a lot of friends in the Senate, and I've got a lot of friends in the Senate, and, combined, who knows -- we might have 51," Dole joked. "It's going to work fine. You need some flexibility and diversity. I don't think any successful firm is all Democrat or all Republican."

That about covers how Washington works: driven by sleazy, bipartisan influence-peddling. And it is, in particular, how the Senate works: members do nice favors for their "friends," who are lavishly paid for asking for those favors (and who ensure that their "friends" still in the Senate are rewarded for granting those favors), and the outcome is our set of laws.

In a way, Obama picked Daschle not in spite of this sleaze, but BECAUSE of it. The thinking was that health care reform could only be accomplished with someone of stature coordinating White House maneuvering, someone who can go get the votes. He wanted someone from the Washington favor factory that would do whatever necessary to get health care reform passed. It would be a turd of a bill, filled with giveaways, but Daschle could do it, and Obama could put a pretty bow on it, and everyone would shout "huzzah."

The buzzsaw that Daschle ran into was a public increasingly given to agree with the populism expressed on the campaign trail, something Washington never saw coming.

So what happened? My guess is that official Washington underestimated the public's pique at what appeared to be the old ways of Washington. Hill staffers tell me that many offices have been inundated with telephone calls, emails, letters and faxes expressing concern (to put it mildly) about Daschle -- not only his failure to pay back taxes but his relationships with major players in the health care industry and rich consulting contracts with the private sector since leaving the Senate, and even the fact that he was given a car and driver by one of them [...]

Typical Americans are hurting very badly right now. They resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections. They've become increasingly suspicious of the conflicts of interest, cozy relationships, and payoffs that seem to pervade not only official Washington but our biggest banks and corporations. In short, many Americans who have worked hard, saved as much as they can, bought a home, obeyed the law, and paid every cent of taxes that were due are beginning to feel like chumps. Their jobs are disappearing, their savings are disappearing, their homes are worth far less than they thought they were, their tax bills are as high as ever if not higher.

Meanwhile, people at the top seem to be living far different lives in a different universe. They're the executives and traders on Wall Street who have lived like kings for years off a bubble of their own making while ripping off small investors, the financial louts who are now taking hundreds of billions of taxpayer bailout money while awarding themselves huge bonuses and throwing lavish parties, the corporate CEOs who are earning seven figures while laying off thousands of workers, the billionaire hedge-fund and private-equity managers who are paying a marginal tax rate of 15 percent on what they say are capital gains while people who earn a fraction of that are paying a higher rate, and, not the least, the Washington insiders who have served on the Hill or in an administration and then gone on to pocket millions as lobbyists for the same companies they once regulated or subsidized. To the American who's outside the power centers -- the places of entitlement and I'll-scratch-your-back-while-you-scratch-mine deal making -- the entire system seems rotten.

I'm sorry Tom Daschle won't be in the Obama administration. He would have served the public well and with distinction. But the public wants change, real change, big change. There's no tolerance any longer for the way things used to be done.

There is a hope in all of this, in the fact that Obama acknowledged the mistake, and more important the disconnect between one set of rules for public officials and another for the man on the street. That's a big step early in an Administration, to take blame and admit it. Now the action has to follow the words.

Ezra Klein has more.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,