To Your Health?

We shouldn’t toast those who sunk Tom Daschle’s nomination

Tom Daschle, Barack Obama’s now-withdrawn nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services and the new White House Office of Health Reform, should have paid his taxes. It is the right thing to do, of course, and the fact that a man of his intelligence could not file a tax return properly—or that a man of his wealth could not afford a good accountant—is puzzling.

But while ethics in politics is an important cause, it pales in comparison to that of health-care reform. While it would be nice if our politicians played by the same tax rules as the rest of the public, an improper tax return has never caused a death. A failure to mention a source of income has never kept medicine from the sick. By sinking the nomination of a man who had by far the best chance of enacting a fair and equitable health-care system in the United States, supposed liberals like the New York Times editorial board may have helped condemn our nation to at least another four years under the current unjust regime.

Tom Daschle is a unique combination: a health-care wonk and a legislative veteran. As someone who has spent his years since leaving the Senate working on health-care policy at the Center for American Progress and writing a book on the subject, Daschle knows the ins and outs of health-policy questions flat. He has even formulated his own sophisticated plan, involving a nonpartisan, Federal Reserve-like Federal Health Board to run the new universal program.

Beyond his policy expertise, Daschle spent 18 years in the U.S. Senate, including 10 as Democratic leader, learning how to move critical legislation. The Clinton health-care effort was, in the opinion of most analysts, crippled by poor relations with Congress, and someone with experience as a leader in the Senate would be ideally suited to avoid that problem. Furthermore, Daschle was in the Senate Democratic leadership and on the critical Finance Committee during the 1994 health-care battle, putting him in an ideal position to learn the lessons of that failure.

None of the names being bandied about to take Daschle’s place have both his knowledge of policy minutiae and his political acumen. Some are wonks, like Daschle’s would-be deputy Jeanne Lambrew. Others are skilled political operators, like Clinton chief of staff and Center for American Progress president John Podesta. But not one can match Daschle in both arenas. Given that both of these skill sets are to be critical in passing a universal health care bill, any possible replacement will not be as effective as he would have been.

It is easy to view Daschle’s withdrawal as a boon for the Obama administration and a strong symbolic stand against corruption. Robert Reich, for one, praised it as a sign of “no tolerance” for “the way things used to be done.” But with Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus expressing doubt that health care reform will happen in 2009, Daschle’s departure will in all likelihood perpetuate “the way things used to be done” in the American health system. And when said system will provide the worst health care in the developed world when an alternative was so close at hand, that’s a real tragedy.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.