Thursday, February 05, 2009

Was losing Daschle a 'catastrophic' cost?

Assenting to the sacrifice of Tom Daschle on the altar of political reform, Joe Klein, it seems to me, views that sacrifice from the wrong end of the telescope:
The excesses of wealth, throughout the country, have become an American problem. The extremely rich have detached themselves from the rest of society, which was the point of Obama's story about private jets. In Washington, it is a bipartisan phenomenon. Democrats have their special interests too, and their lobbyists are terrific at what they do. A guy like Daschle, who knows the system cold, who could talk to both the insurance companies and the liberal advocates, would have been invaluable to Obama in bringing health insurance to everyone who needs it. But, as the man said, we're all going to have to sacrifice, and it now seems clear that Obama's sacrifice, if he wants to reattach Washington to a nation sick with cynicism about its government, will be to detach himself from the lobbyist élites who might have helped grease the skids for his policy goals.
The key phrase here is would have been invaluable to Obama in bringing health insurance to everyone who needs it. This country cannot restructure its economy and get a grip on future spending without reforming healthcare effectively. We can't roll back the great risk shift without shielding Americans from catastrophic medical costs and ending the risk of exposure every time a person loses or changes jobs. Daschle's understanding of healthcare policy is of the highest order, and his political skills and knowledge of the legislative process are matchless. Losing him could prove catastrophic to the most important policy initiative of Obama's first term.

It's true that Obama based his campaign on the premise that we can't reform our policies effectively until we reform our politics. It's also true that he has a unique opportunity now to break the lobbyist culture that Klein outlines. But Obama may have miscalibrated his ethics message and policies to a degree. In limiting lobbying and lobby-like entanglements, it's impractical to start from scratch. To rule out anyone who didn't now meet the kind of standards that make sense going forward is as constraining as trying to pick a cabinet that "looks like America."

The tax issues are tougher. You'd think that by this point anyone with ambition for high office would regard a "when in doubt, report and pay" principle as indispensable career protection if
nothing else. These "screw it, I'll keep it" tax reflexes are hard to excuse, particularly in the current climate, as the country reacts to decades of ever-increasing self-licensing excess from elites of all stripes. But they're also near-universal. What percentage of Americans with non-salaried income really chose to pay taxes on all income that would not readily show up if they didn't declare it?

As Ezra Klein points out, "The endlessly long vetting forms forcing deep tax and income transparency... in turn uncovered embarrassments that would never have emerged under past regimes." He also provides important perspective on the mode of Daschle's cashing in:
In recent days, there's been an effort to paint Daschle as one of Washington's most corrupt creatures. Jack Abramoff with an electoral history. But so far as sell-outs go, Daschle's sins were almost modest. His path frequently diverged from money. He never registered as a lobbyist or did any lobbying, even though you get paid more to ensure access than offer advice. He spent huge chunks of time working with the Center for American Progress and writing a technical book on health reform. None of that proved lucrative (his book advance was $22,000; poor for a political pundit, much less a former Senate majority leader). He endorsed Obama in February of 2007, when Clinton was far ahead in the polls. If she'd won -- and most thought she would -- his access to the White House would be close to nonexistent, and his value to clients would be greatly diminished.
Ultimately, though, Klein (Ezra) too embraces the Daschle withdrawal as the price of reform:
But it turns out that Obama's words, well, mattered. They made it harder to ignore scandal, as the Bush administration had done. The endlessly long vetting forms forcing deep tax and income transparency, which in turn uncovered embarrassments that would never have emerged under past regimes. This has made for a more troubled transition, but will probably also result in a cleaner administration. For all the embarrassments, this, in a concrete sense, is what change looks like. It's not an administration that decides to be clean so much as one that has little choice in the matter.
Cleanliness is never absolute, however, and it never lasts. The cycle of reform and corruption and new reform is eternal -- or rather, it's only broken when corruption becomes so endemic that reform is impossible, at which point democratic choice becomes an illusion. Our politicians will never be monks, and we shouldn't want them to be (in fact, monkish orders endure their own cycles of corruption and reform). Perhaps those vetting forms shouldn't have cut so deep; perhaps the lobbying guidelines should have been more forward-looking, more forgiving of past conduct. Obama should not have lost the people he's lost.

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