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Daschle's departure: Did it change the healthcare debate?

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and President Obama by Charles Dharapak:AP

In February 2009, in the early days of a new White House, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination as President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services over a failure to pay $128,203 in taxes. Many predicted that the loss of Daschle's legislative skills and goodwill on Capitol Hill would cripple the new president's signature campaign promise: to reform healthcare. 

North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad called the Daschle news a "tremendous loss" to the White House. Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd said it was a "major blow" to efforts to overhaul the healthcare system.

At the very least, observers worried that the withdrawal would slow the process, giving Congress more power to shape the package while the White House scrambled for a Plan B. Robert Laszewski, a healthcare consultant who follows health policy, told the Wall Street Journal that Daschle would be hard to replace. "This will set the healthcare debate back months not weeks," he predicted.

Were they right? Clearly the vacuum of time from Daschle's withdrawal in February to Kathleen Sebelius' confirmation in April did shift power from the White House to Congress and may have slowed the process in the Senate.

Even more damaging than the loss of timing was the loss of Daschle's skill as a manager of public opinion. With Daschle explaining the bill, would conservatives have mounted a tea party rebellion against death panels? Would South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson have shouted "You lie!" to Obama on the House floor?

Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers and longtime observer of the Washington scene, thinks not.

"If Daschle had gotten the job, there would have been better and more sustained explanations of the bill as it evolved," he told Ticket. "His grasp of substance and extensive knowledge of procedure would have enabled the administration to give a better narrative." Faulting the White House for falling down on selling the package, Ross thinks -- with no respect to Sebelius -- that Daschle's tactical sensibilities "would have made a difference."

Let us know what you think.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Tom Daschle and President Obama. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

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Comments () | Archives (5)

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Since you ask, I think you're morons if you think all we needed was a better salesmen to convince us to like this hoopty.

Daschle's departure helped it pass. With Daschle in the loop the radical, life killing measures in this law (and the philosophy undergirding it) would have had a tangible face. He would have had to answer for quotes from his book and statements such as his affirmation that health reform “will not be pain free” (read: the elderly will especially suffer as well as all of us).

Both Daschle's departure and Stupak's distracting and devious inclusion helped this pass.

As for explaining this, we don't need Daschle to explain it. Candidate Obama
explained part of it with his announced intention to "spread the wealth." If you need further explanation see Andy Garcia's historical movie 'The Lost City'. You'll understand perfectly.

And ... cue the wingnuts.

In the bigger picture $128K is such a small amount of money, yet not paying that amount was a mistake. It is such a shame that a little mistake has such a high price tag for such a good man. We all make mistakes; I wonder what price I'll pay for mine.

President Obama arrives in Colorado today with approval ratings in the state lower than his national average. Early polls suggest Reid's re-election bid may be the biggest loss for the party since the unseating of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004.


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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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