In a striking repetition of the up-and-down pattern of the Democratic primaries a year ago, President Barack Obama filled one Cabinet vacancy Tuesday but saw another one embarrassingly come open.
I had just begun a column congratulating him on recruiting Sen. Judd Gregg, of New Hampshire, as commerce secretary when news broke that Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader who left lots of taxes unpaid, was withdrawing as the nominee for secretary of the Health and Human Services Department.
The immediate loss is much greater than the gain, but the payoff on Gregg, the third Republican in the Cabinet, will be substantial down the road.
For now, however, the Daschle fiasco is the worst embarrassment Obama has suffered since winning the election. Daschle was no ordinary appointee, and HHS is no ordinary job.
Along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose campaign taught Obama the ups and downs of the presidential race, Daschle was the best-credentialed, best-connected Democrat slated for the Cabinet. He was one of the earliest Washington establishment figures to endorse Obama, and he provided from his old staff many of the people who helped Obama rise.
Daschle’s assignment was to shepherd Obama’s health care plan to passage, a task that has only grown in urgency since Hillary and Bill Clinton failed in their effort 15 years ago. As a skilled legislative craftsman who had made health policy a specialty in recent years, Daschle was given special status, with a White House office and title along with the Cabinet post.
Daschle’s withdrawal not only costs the administration and the country his skilled services; it leaves Obama and the administration with egg on their faces.
He is the third person introduced and praised by Obama who was forced to bow out before the first month of the administration was over, following Bill Richardson, who was supposed to be commerce secretary, and Nancy Killefer, the choice for chief performance officer.
Even when the White House belatedly learned of Daschle’s tax troubles, it misjudged the political fallout. Despite the glaring contradiction between Obama’s proclaimed ethical standards and Daschle’s lucrative expense-account life that led to his tax underpayment, Obama said he “absolutely” stood by his choice. One day later, he accepted Daschle’s resignation. This is a blow to Obama’s credibility that will not be easily forgotten.
For now, recruiting Gregg for Commerce is scant consolation for the loss of Daschle. But in months to come, Gregg will be worth celebrating. He is one of the smart guys on Capitol Hill, especially when it comes to fiscal policy. And he provides Obama with a third strong Republican Cabinet member, joining Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Ray LaHood at Transportation.
Gregg and North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, respectively the top Republican and Democrat on the Budget Committee, have been pushing for the creation of a bipartisan commission that would tackle the looming bankruptcy of the three big entitlement programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Conrad told me he deeply regrets the departure of his partner and does not know where to find a substitute.
But help may be on the way. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the No. 3 man in the Senate Republican leadership, quietly joined the Budget Committee last month. When I asked him why, he said it was to “help move the Gregg-Conrad commission proposal forward.”
Moreover, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader of the Senate, told the National Press Club that a bipartisan deal on entitlements is something he thinks can and should happen in this Congress.
Obama said the same thing when he visited the Washington Post just before the inauguration, and now he has in Gregg someone who can help him lobby Congress to move that project forward.
The problem is likely to be in the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi remains opposed to the commission idea and where Republicans are adamant against considering tax hikes along with benefit reductions in any kind of “grand bargain.”
It will be a heavy lift, but there are willing hands.