Daschle's Demise

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 10:12 AM

The conventional wisdom was wrong -- again.

The journalists, the pundits and the pols were all describing the Daschle nomination as an embarrassment but expressing little doubt that he would be confirmed by his former Senate pals.

So Tom Daschle's withdrawal at midday yesterday came as a surprise because the media had not been describing his bid for HHS secretary as being on the brink of failure. The press wasn't cutting the former minority leader any slack, and it didn't help to have the New York Times editorial page urging him to withdraw. But he did pay the back taxes, and the Democrats had the votes to get him through.

Daschle deserves credit for realizing he had become a big liability to the administration. Andrea Mitchell, who had predicted Daschle's confirmation, said he was distraught when they spoke and that the Times editorial made him realize he was becoming a major distraction.

I think journalists were looking at the inside game -- how many votes were lined up for confirmation -- while shortchanging the outside game, which is how badly this was playing in the country.

Daschle's defenders were making the argument that he's a health-care expert, a man who made a bad mistake and fixed it. Fair enough. But the symbolism was awful, and it includes the question of what exactly a modest South Dakotan did to earn $5 million after leaving the Senate in 2004.

Check out this YouTube clip of a Daschle campaign ad saying that "among Washington's BMWs and limos," Daschle drives a rusty 1971 Pontiac to work. We see him behind the wheel. "Maybe he's sentimental, or just cheap," the announcer says. Compare that with the image of Daschle being chauffeured around town, courtesy of a Democratic media mogul, and belatedly realizing he had to pay taxes on the service.

Lots of Washington hotshots leave important jobs and peddle their influence. Unfortunately for Daschle, that was the culture that Obama ran against.

But I'll say one thing about the president's damage control effort with five network anchors yesterday. He took his lumps. He didn't duck or evade. He used three words we never heard from George W. Bush: "I screwed up." He also said, "I think today was an embarrassment for us." And he talked about "self-inflicted wounds."

Here's why that's important. Usually when a politician makes a mistake and sits down for interviews, he tries to deflect and minimize: It was unfortunate, but we're looking ahead, the real issue are the problems facing the American people, only the Beltway pundits care about this. Obama didn't do that. He took responsibility and didn't put himself in the position of denying the obvious.

Notice how Obama's contrition becomes part of the lead:

"Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination as secretary of health and human services on Tuesday after weathering four days of scrutiny over unpaid taxes, prompting President Obama to concede having 'screwed up' in undermining his own ethical standards by pushing the appointment," the NYT says.

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