The news of Tom Daschle's withdrawal from consideration for the HHS and health-reform-czar is deeply unfortunate. It would be hard to say that the chance of health care reform didn't take a hit.
I am forced to wonder that having scruples in one area can prevent one from actually exercising one's scruples in another area. Let's stipulate that Daschle's non-payment of taxes was deeply irresponsible, unseemly, even inexcusable; and that his work as a “strategic advisor” is only technically different from lobbying. But, let's also say, for the sake of argument, that Daschle was indispensible to universal health care passing. Are Tom Daschle's missed tax payments and corporate-shilling background a reason to sacrifice health care for 47 million Americans? I think few people would say so. For many folks in Congress and the administration, the eventual legislation will be their raison d'etre in public service, their life's work, their legacy, their epitaph. Daschle's tax problems will be an asterisk of history.
So, if one has the courage of several convictions (people should pay their taxes/people should have health care) … maybe at some point one has to choose between them. I wonder if the answer is not always as obvious as it seems. Reforming health care is big time stuff; lives are in the balance. Is that worth looking the other way on a tax dodge? Isn't a kind of political ruthlessness and unswerving focus necessary? Do I need Tom Daschle to pay his freakin' taxes more than I need health care?
I know this flirts with cynicism, and the slope is slippery indeed. I'm not even sure I believe what I'm saying myself. But I find myself feeling some rueful, if incomplete, sympathy with this sentiment, regarding another flawed political player.
Fortunately, I don't necessarily think that Daschle and only Daschle could get the deal done. There's still commitment from the Democrats to get it done this year. Pelosi, Reid, Obama, and perhaps most importantly, Sen. Finance chair Max Baucus have said they will go to the mat for health care, this year. Baucus today described the Daschle business as “a blip” on the movement for legislation. Most Republicans will have nothing to offer but obstruction, but Sen. Baucus has signaled a willingness to take the bill to budget reconciliation, which bypasses the GOP's filibuster option.
And in any event, it's still really in the hands of the public. The public will have to exert absolutely crushing pressure on congress to get a good deal done — particularly one with a public insurance option. This is where the ruthlessness may come in.
Time for Obama, and all of us, to get back on offense, to take the battle to the opposition, if a battle there must be. Bipartisanship is fine, but we should feel free to play hardball when we have to. We won.