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

March 22, 2010 | 11:09 am

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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