No doubt about it, life for politicians can be hard. They put in longer hours at boring chores than most of us would tolerate. They suffer humiliation at the hands of opponents and journalists. They have to beg for campaign funds. Worse, they run the risk of rejection by the voters.
This melancholy vision of public life explains the widespread belief that when someone like Tom Daschle leaves office, he deserves the right to make serious money, as compensation for all he has endured. Politicians in the United States and Canada now firmly endorse that opinion and most of us silently accept it. No one objects when a premier takes on well-paid corporate directorships after leaving office. He's expected to cash in on the reputation and friends he made in public life. It's anticipated that lawyers-turned-politicians, in their post-politics careers, will grow rich by functioning, much of the time, as lobbyists.
This entitlement culture suffuses the world detailed in Robert G. Kaiser's new book, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. In Washington and (on a smaller scale) in Ottawa, this world is alluring. But when things go wrong, or the rules unexpectedly change, it can lead to ignominy. Daschle, a former U. S. senate majority leader who was Barack Obama's choice for Health and Human Services secretary, didn't quite understand this truth.
In the four years since the voters of South Dakota retired him, Daschle has made about $5-million from various sources. Although he's known for his shrewdness, he's been careless about paying taxes. He did not declare, for instance, the private car and driver one of his employers provided for both personal and business use. So what's the problem? He was ready to pay all taxes, plus penalties. Obama's staff agreed that the public was too worried about the economy to fret over an appointee's income tax. Moreover, there was the precedent of Timothy Geithner, the new Treasury secretary, who'd been quickly forgiven for his failures as a taxpayer.
Daschle, while apparently admired by every Washington liberal who speaks under his own name, was nevertheless a different case. In the 1990s, when his wife, Linda Daschle, was an executive at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Tom Daschle's relations with the FAA and a charter airline came under scrutiny. Following a plane crash, it was acknowledged that the plane was owned by an airline headed by a friend of Daschle. As a senator, he had opposed duplicate inspections of aircraft by the FAA and the Forest Service in rural areas. Daschle's lawyer claimed that his action had simply relieved charter companies of an undue burden in his state. Eventually, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him.
By the time he was established as the Senate's most important Democrat in 2001, his wife was a high-paid lobbyist for American Airlines, Boeing and other aviation clients. She "recused" herself when her clients had business in the senate but no senator was unaware of her commitments. In 2004, when Daschle was briefly discussed as a presidential candidate, Washington Monthly gave one reason why he was unsuitable: His wife represented clients who had business with her husband and donated money to him. "Those clients pay her big bucks to help fight safety regulations and to win government money," the Washington Monthly reported. Little was said about this in public. Democrats didn't want to attack Daschle, and, as the Democrats said, some Republicans were also married to lobbyists.
In good times, connections like these were condoned. In bad times, they are harder to accept. After all, the citizens are now entrusting unprecedented money to the government for redistribution in the form of "stimulus"; they have a right to demand that it be handled honestly.
The New York Times editorial page, as always a mirror of conventional wisdom, said on Tuesday that the Daschle revelations were "one oversight case too many." Expressing anger in quasi-monarchical tones, the Times editorialists wrote, "We were not pleased," an echo of "We are not amused," the line attributed to Queen Victoria when she confronted something unpleasant. The Times suggested Daschle clear the air by withdrawing his name. As he acknowledged, the newspaper helped him make up his mind. At noon the same day, he withdrew.
He became the symbol for a huge class of lobbyists. All these years, the Daschles have been doing only what comes naturally in their world. But citizens and journalists, having been promised relief from lobbyists by Obama, apparently believe that at least this one promise can and should be kept. The public has turned against influence peddlers and wants them metaphorically burned at the stake. It's just possible that with the Daschle case, Washington has begun to close down a spectacularly malodorous aspect of democracy.