Driving Mr. Daschle Out?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009 10:00 AM

Can Tom Daschle make it into the end zone with both feet inbounds?

Conservatives are on the offense after the belated disclosure that the former Senate minority leader had to repay $140,000 in back taxes for a car and driver provided by a corporate benefactor. But liberals aren't mounting much of a defense for the embattled HHS nominee, and one editor on the left has called for him to bow out.

In Daschle's favor, of course, is the clubby nature of a Senate that is going to be reluctant to reject one of its longtime members, especially after his apology yesterday.

As a lawmaker, Tom Daschle always struck me as a modest South Dakotan who was more interested in behind-the-scenes compromise than lining his pockets. I happened to see him at a Whole Foods a few weeks ago, shopping by himself, and that fit the image. Little did I know his car and driver might be waiting outside.

But after losing a reelection bid, Daschle decided to cash in, like so many Washington insiders before him. There was the at least $3 million a year from the companies that were paying him, the fat speaking fees from corporations, and the former telecommunications executive and Democratic donor, Leo Hindery, who provided the chauffeur services. But at 3 mil a year, why couldn't Daschle have paid for his own car and driver? And how much savvy does it take to figure out that such 'free' services would be considered taxable income?

Daschle wasn't technically a lobbyist, but does anyone really doubt why big law firms and companies were throwing money at him?

The media, which some expected to roll over for Obama, are not giving Daschle an easy time. His tax fiasco -- including his failure to reveal it to the Obama vetters until after the fact -- was the lead story in Sunday's Washington Post and also on the front page of the New York Times, and the Times had another front-pager yesterday detailing how a former senator in four years could "live a lavish lifestyle by dint of his name, connections and knowledge of the town's inner workings." Plus, the paper's editorial page says today that Daschle should pull out.

It doesn't help that Daschle's tax problem follows Tim Geithner's tax problem. And that presents the new president, who has talked up the need for an ethical administration free from special interests, with a dilemma. Obama, for his part, fielded a Daschle question yesterday with a one-word answer. Talk about staying on message.

"Congressional Democrats moved Monday to shore up Tom Daschle's nomination to become President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services as the former senator apologized publicly for not paying more than $128,000 in income taxes," the L.A. Times reports.

" 'The American people have high expectations for those of us who serve the public good. That's especially true when it comes to taxes. They pay their fair share and they expect all of us to do the same,' Daschle told reporters after meeting with the Senate Finance Committee to answer questions."

"During almost two years on the campaign trail," says the NYT, "Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a 'new era of responsibility.' What he did not talk much about were the asterisks.

"The exceptions that went unmentioned now include a pair of cabinet nominees who did not pay all of their taxes. Then there is the lobbyist for a military contractor who is now slated to become the No. 2 official in the Pentagon. And there are the others brought into government from the influence industry even if not formally registered as lobbyists . . .

"The episode has already shown how, when faced with the perennial clash between campaign rhetoric and Washington reality, Mr. Obama has proved willing to compromise."

Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel sees Daschle as an expendable symbol of corporate influence:

"The serious issue here is Daschle's ties to health care firms. In a letter to the HHS ethics office on January 16th (cited in the Washington Post on Sunday) Daschle wrote that he wouldn't participate in any matter over the next year in which 'a former client of mine is a party or represents a party.' How does one define that? And won't this then mean that Daschle is unable to play a role in passing critical healthcare reform until 2010?

"After all, the same Washington Post story notes that the Health Industry Distributors Assn., which represents medical product distributors, wrote Daschle 'last week' to express concerns about proposed Medicare changes and 'reminded him of the $14,000 speech he delivered at its conference last year.' Other special interests from which Daschle collected speaking fees ranging from $12,000 to $40,000 included the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and America's Health Insurance Plans, which represents the for-profit health insurance industry. He also gave 'policy advice' to United Health, a conglomerate that sells insurance, helps the government administer Medicaid, advises drug companies and physicians and dispenses prescriptions. In fact, when all is tallied up, the former senator received more than $300,000 in income from health related companies that he might regulate . . .

"Daschle's potential conflicts of interest should persuade Obama to make this a 'teachable moment' and find another public servant to tackle the critical task of healthcare reform. If Obama stated clearly that regulators in his administration should not have any financial ties to the industries they regulate, he'd revive the change brand he campaigned and won on."

Already, the Wall Street Journal editorial page is trying to make Daschle a Democratic Party albatross:

"So Tom Daschle, the erstwhile prairie populist and scourge of multiple presidential nominees, failed to disclose and pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars of income. He also waited months to pay up and told the Obama transition team about his tax oversights only days before his Senate confirmation hearing to become secretary of Health and Human Services.

"This one is going to be fascinating to watch, less for what it says about Mr. Daschle than what it will reveal about Democratic standards. Every Republican in America knows that if Mr. Daschle were a Reagan or Bush nominee he'd now be headed back to private life faster than you can say John Tower. That's the way Democrats have treated GOP nominees who were accused of far lesser transgressions than Mr. Daschle's tax, er, avoidance. The question is whether Democrats are going to treat Mr. Daschle according to the standard that Mr. Daschle set when he was running the Senate . . .

"If Mr. Daschle were the stand-up guy his fellow Democrats say he is, he'd withdraw his nomination and spare them the embarrassment of confirming someone who thinks the tax laws apply only to other people."

Why hasn't the president had to pull the plug on nominees in jeopardy? David Frum has a theory:

"The Obama administration went ahead anyway -- even though Geithner's and Daschle's issues were at least as serious as those that blocked the confirmation of Linda Chavez in 2001 and Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood in 1993. So why is Obama succeeding where Bush and Clinton failed?

"It's not just that President Obama has the votes in the Senate: Clinton and Bush both started with Senate majorities too. (50 votes plus the vice president in Bush's case.) It's not just that he has the press on board: Clinton started with a favorable press too.

"What Obama has that Clinton and Bush lacked is the self-confidence that comes from facing a thoroughly defeated opposition. In 1993 and 2001, it was the administration that wanted to avoid unnecessary fights. This time it is the Senate minority that feels it has to choose its battles carefully. The administration is aware of that weakness, and is taking full advantage of it, not only in confirmations but in major matters like the stimulus. What is most galling about the situation is that the administration is right. Had Republicans seriously tried to stop the Geithner nomination, they would have done more damage to themselves. Wall Street wanted Geithner confirmed."

At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey isn't buying the blame-the-accountants line:

"At some point, this nomination has to be more trouble than it's worth. After all, no one will buy the notion that Daschle's 'uniquely qualified' for the HHS position as some did with Geithner at Treasury. The HHS position is a payback for Daschle's support in the primaries, and Obama has a perfect excuse now to dump Daschle regardless of loyalty. By keeping his tax problems secret, he's proven rather untrustworthy.

"And that gets to the heart of why the Senate should have rejected Geithner and why they should refuse to confirm Daschle. It's a matter of trust. Neither man shows a compelling reason why they should have the public's trust placed in them. Both men will run vast bureaucracies and enforcement mechanisms, Geithner especially. The public has the right to demand people with proven accountability, not people who blame their accountants -- or their accounting programs.

"Unfortunately, the public hasn't demanded it, in part because the press has been willing to portray these as 'glitches.' "

Maybe in Geithner's case, but I don't think that's true with Daschle.

In a similar vein, National Review's Victor Davis Hanson says the new administration is getting a pass:

"For all the promises of a revolution in ethics, President Obama has created a new syndrome: The well-off can be made to stop evading their taxes by nominating them for cabinet posts. In any case, compare Bush's cabinet picks with Daschle, Geithner, Holder, Lynn, and Richardson -- and discover that there is no empirical evidence of any higher ethical standard for public office in the Obama era.

"Obama can pick and choose to do what Bush did, without worrying over press censure or consistency with his past protestations. Remember, there is no press now, at least as we have known it since Watergate. Sometime around mid-2007, during its coverage of the Democratic primary, it ceased to be investigatory and chose to become an adulatory megaphone."

Really? Has he read any of the Daschle coverage?

The strongest defense Josh Marshall can mount is that Daschle has been a "critical figure" for Obama since losing his 2004 race:

"As Daschle was closing up shop, a number of his key staffers went over to Obama to get his senate operation started, most notably Daschle's former Chief of Staff, Peter Rouse. Rouse is now an Obama 'Senior Advisor' whose office is just a few steps down from the Oval Office.

"Whatever you make of the substance of the tax and lobbying issues threatening Daschle's nomination, I think it will take quite a lot for Obama to pull the plug on his nomination."

Another Republican for the Cabinet, but not without some dealmaking:

"President Obama plans to nominate Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire for secretary of commerce today, a White House official said last night," the Boston Globe reports. "John Lynch, New Hampshire's Democratic governor, strongly implied yesterday he would appoint a Republican to replace Gregg.

"Lynch said that Gregg would only take the job on condition that a Republican be appointed to serve out his term, an assertion Gregg quickly confirmed. Lynch said he had spoken to Gregg, who would be the third Republican in Obama's Cabinet, and to the White House, and he seemed inclined to give the new president and the state's senior senator what they needed to make a deal."

The sensitivity is heightened because a Democratic appointee would give Obama's party a filibuster-proof 60 senators, if Al Franken wins the endless recount battle in Minnesota.

All but overshadowed was the 75-21 vote to confirm Eric Holder as the nation's first black attorney general.

"Mr. Holder's confirmation never appeared to be in serious doubt, although Republicans delayed it for a week and railed against his record as a top Justice Department official during the Clinton administration," the Washington Times says. "They specifically attacked Mr. Holder's role in the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich and his involvement in clemency for a group of Puerto Rican terrorists.

"They also feared that Mr. Holder would prosecute intelligence officials who carried out controversial interrogation techniques during the Bush administration. Mr. Holder sought to allay those fears in a written response to questions from Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas."

I mentioned yesterday that Obama wants a study of gays in the military, and Americablog's John Aravosis is not pleased:

"1. Why do a study on the effect lifting the ban will have on 'national security'? Obama has already committed to lifting the ban. Yet now, after the fact, we're looking at whether it's a good, safe idea? That doesn't send a very confident message about Obama's decision-making -- investigating the wisdom of a decision after he's already made it.

"2. If that study says that lifting the ban will harm national security (and we all know the results of the study will be leaked), then will Obama really still lift the ban? What's to guarantee that the study won't completely undercut Obama's promise? 3. Does anyone doubt for a minute what conclusion the Pentagon brass is going to reach in this study about whether or not it's a good idea to lift the ban?"

Obama and friends get the Annie Leibovitz treatment in Vanity Fair . The pictures are here.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company