More On Daschle

As Steve noted earlier, Tom Daschle has asked that his nomination as Secretary of HHS be withdrawn, and Obama has agreed. As I wrote a few days ago, I think this is a good thing. I think Daschle would have been an immense asset in trying to get health care passed, and I do not take that lightly. Nonetheless, I do not think that he is irreplaceable. And the combination of his tax problems and his ties to the health care industry were, I think, a very serious problem. I wasn’t particularly happy with my last post on this topic — when I wrote it, I was running out to have dinner with some friends — so I thought I’d say a bit more about why.

One of my hypotheses about Obama — not something I think I have conclusive evidence for, but something I believe — is that he is trying to raise the bar for politics. Recall the idea behind the phrase ‘The Audacity of Hope’. It’s easy to be cynical. If you’re cynical, you are never disappointed. You will never look like a sucker or be played for a fool. No one will ever call you naive. Cynicism is safe that way: safe and cowardly. Hope, by contrast, is risky. But it’s absolutely necessary if we want to do anything great: if you don’t believe that it’s possible to achieve great things, if you never risk disappointment, you cannot do much that’s worth doing.

I have always suspected that when Obama talks about a new kind of politics, one of the things he’s doing is trying to apply this in the political arena. As long as people are completely cynical about politicians — as long as they act as though there’s just something in the water in Washington DC that makes people turn into corrupt insincere spinmeisters whose words are worthless and who wouldn’t recognize honor if it sat down next to them on the bus — we will never ask anything more of them. And if we don’t ask anything more of them, we will probably not get it.

If, instead, we expected politicians to act like normal, decent human beings — to admit mistakes, treat their opponents with respect even when they’re fighting them on policy, not twist people’s words to score political points, not be corrupt — then we wouldn’t settle for some of the ones we have. And that would be a wonderful thing. (We might also get better at distinguishing different forms of corruption and their importance.)

So: my hypothesis was that Obama was trying to give people grounds to hope for more from their political leaders, and that he planned to do it in the only way that could work: not by talking about it, but by living it. (In general, Obama seems to me to have a very good grasp of the difference between talking about the importance of X and acting as if X actually matters to you.) If he succeeded, I thought, that would be a truly wonderful thing.

But there’s one obvious danger: that if you raise people’s hopes and then disappoint them, it’s much worse than if you had never tried at all. I assumed Obama knew this: he’s much too smart not to. For this reason, I always thought that if I was right about what he was up to, it was a stunningly self-confident thing to do, and an enormous gamble.

That’s why I said that I thought Daschle had to go: because he put all of this at risk. If you want to show that it’s possible to expect more of politicians, you cannot begin by acting as though screwing up your taxes is OK, or as though these little six-figure slip-ups are not a big deal, especially when the explanation for the biggest one was basically: I was used to having a car and driver, so I didn’t think much of it. You cannot do what I think Obama is trying to do and act as though the rich and well-connected get to live by different rules than the rest of us.

This was a tough one. Obama is close to Daschle. Daschle has helped him in a lot of ways since he got to the Senate. Moreover, by all accounts Daschle is a decent man who would have done a very good job at HHS. I tend to agree with Franklin Foer’s take on this:

“What happened to Tom Daschle? Why did he screw up like this given his clear ambition of returning to government? My theory: His wife Linda is a powerful lobbyist in town. And when you live among the city’s top echelon of lobbyists, you become socialized into that world. This isn’t to smear lobbyists. There are actually many decent men and women in that profession, whose existence is in some important way vital to the functioning of our democracy. But there’s obviously a lot of excess, too. So, perhaps Daschle’s moral boundaries and sense of judgment shifted over time. In this reading of his actions, he wasn’t self-consciously chasing dollars; he was adhering to the norms of his particuliar class of lobbyists.”

The fact that lobbyists, like bankers and CEOs, too often take extraordinary privilege for granted, and that Daschle moved in their world, explains a lot. It’s also why, in my opinion, he had to go. It was plainly a very hard call for Obama. But in some ways, that made it all the more important.

That’s also why I was heartened by what Obama said about this episode tonight:

“President Barack Obama on Tuesday abruptly abandoned his nomination fight for Tom Daschle and a second major appointee who failed to pay all their taxes, telling NBC News: “I screwed up.”

“I’ve got to own up to my mistake. Ultimately, it’s important for this administration to send a message that there aren’t two sets of rules — you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes,” Obama said on NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams.””

There should not be two sets of rules, one for people who have to pay their taxes and one for people who don’t. Nor should there be two sets of rules, one for people who have to take responsibility for their mistakes and one for people who don’t. I’m glad that Obama ended up rejecting both double standards.