Tom Daschle’s surprise withdrawal today shocked most Washington insiders — after all, Daschle had been a key figure in the Senate, was Obama’s pick for a major role in the new administration, would very likely have done a superb job getting a new health-insurance system enacted, and, probably could have mustered enough votes to be confirmed. So what happened? My guess is that official Washington underestimated the public’s pique at what appeared to be the old ways of Washington. Hill staffers tell me that many offices have been inundated with telephone calls, emails, letters and faxes expressing concern (to put it mildly) about Daschle — not only his failure to pay back taxes but his relationships with major players in the health care industry and rich consulting contracts with the private sector since leaving the Senate, and even the fact that he was given a car and driver by one of them.
What’s going on here? Maybe official Washington, much like most of Wall Street, is still not quite getting it.
Typical Americans are hurting very badly right now. They resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections. They’ve become increasingly suspicious of the conflicts of interest, cozy relationships, and payoffs that seem to pervade not only official Washington but our biggest banks and corporations. In short, many Americans who have worked hard, saved as much as they can, bought a home, obeyed the law, and paid every cent of taxes that were due are beginning to feel like chumps. Their jobs are disappearing, their savings are disappearing, their homes are worth far less than they thought they were, their tax bills are as high as ever if not higher — but people at the top seem to be living far different lives in a different universe. They’re the executives and traders on Wall Street have lived like kings for years off a bubble of their own making while ripping off small investors, the financial louts who are now taking hundreds of billions of taxpayer bailout money while awarding themselves huge bonuses and throwing lavish parties, the corporate CEOs who are earning seven figures while laying off thousands of workers, the billionaire hedge-fund and private-equity managers who are paying a marginal tax rate of 15 percent on what they say are capital gains while people who earn a fraction of that are paying a higher rate, and, not the least, the Washington insiders who have served on the Hill or in an administration and then gone on to pocket millions as lobbyists for the same companies they once regulated or subsidized. To the American who’s outside the power centers — the places of entitlement and I’ll-scratch-your-back-while-you-scratch-mine deal making — the entire system seems rotten.
I’m sorry Tom Daschle won’t be in the Obama administration. He would have served the public well and with distinction. But the public wants change, real change, big change. There’s no tolerance any longer for the way things used to be done.