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Daschle's Demise Is Just the Beginning: Get Ready for a Torrent of Populist Outrage

Americans have had just about enough of watching insiders with the right connections living well off the rest of us.
 
 
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Someday historians may look back at Tom Daschle’s flameout as a minor one-car (and chauffeur) accident. But that will depend on whether or not it’s followed by a multi-vehicle pileup that still could come. Even as President Obama refreshingly took responsibility for having “screwed up,” it’s not clear that he fully understands the huge forces that hit his young administration last week.

The tsunami of populist rage coursing through America is bigger than Daschle’s overdue tax bill, bigger than John Thain’s trash can, bigger than any bailed-out C.E.O.’s bonus. It’s even bigger than the Obama phenomenon itself. It could maim the president’s best-laid plans and what remains of our economy if he doesn’t get in front of the mounting public anger.

Like nearly everyone else in Washington, Obama was blindsided by the savagery and speed of Daschle’s demise. Conventional wisdom had him surviving the storm. Such is the city’s culture that not a single Republican or Democratic senator called for his withdrawal until the morning of his exit. Membership in the exclusive Senate club, after all, has its privileges. Among Daschle’s more vocal defenders was Bob Dole, who had recruited him to Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm where Dole has served as “ special counsel” when not otherwise cashing in on his own Senate years by serving as a pitchman for Pepsi and Viagra.

In New York, editorial pages on both ends of the political spectrum, The Wall Street Journal and The Times, called for Daschle to step down. But not The Washington Post. In a frank expression of the capital’s isolation from the country, it thought Daschle could still soldier on even though “ordinary Americans who pay their taxes may well wonder why Mr. Obama can’t find cabinet secretaries who do the same.”

As Jon Stewart might say, oh those pesky ordinary Americans!

In reality, Daschle’s tax shortfall, an apparently honest mistake, was only a red flag for the larger syndrome that much of Washington still doesn’t get. It was the source, not the amount, of his unreported income that did him in. The car and driver advertised his post-Senate immersion in the greedy bipartisan culture of entitlement and crony capitalism that both helped create our economic meltdown (on Wall Street) and failed to police it (in Washington). Daschle might well have been the best choice to lead health-care reform. But his honorable public record was instantly vaporized by tales of his cozy, lucrative relationships with the very companies he’d have to adjudicate as health czar.

Few articulate this ethical morass better than Obama, who has repeatedly vowed to “ close the revolving door” between business and government and end our “two sets of standards, one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks.” But his tough new restrictions on lobbyists (already compromised by inexplicable exceptions) and porous plan for salary caps on bailed-out bankers are only a down payment on this promise, even if they are strictly enforced.

The new president who vowed to change Washington’s culture will have to fight much harder to keep from being co-opted by it instead. There are simply too many major players in the Obama team who are either alumni of the financial bubble’s insiders’ club or of the somnambulant governmental establishment that presided over the catastrophe.

This includes Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary. Washington hands repeatedly observe how “lucky” Geithner was to be the first cabinet nominee with an I.R.S. problem, not the second, and therefore get confirmed by Congress while the getting was good. Whether or not this is “lucky” for him, it is hardly lucky for Obama. Geithner should have left ahead of Daschle.

 
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