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Contentions

All in a Fortnight

Tom Daschle has withdrawn, sparing the President who just yesterday defended him, from further humiliation. You could see this coming in the morning papers. Richard Cohen sounded down in the dumps:

The new Obama administration could use a rewind button. Hit it and we’d go back to those wonderful days of a couple of weeks ago when history was made, change was in the air and all of Washington tingled with anticipation. Now, though, we have one Cabinet nominee who did not pay all of his taxes and another Cabinet pick already confirmed who did something similar — and a stimulus package that offers mountains of cash but only molehills of reform. Can we go back a bit?

He bemoans the obvious conclusion that “[i]f you are beloved by this administration, you don’t necessarily have to play by the rules.” We’re left puzzled as to why in two weeks the administration frittered so much good will and, dare I say, hope, away.

But it is not just Daschle. In a fortnight they come up with a dreadful stimulus bill, revived the stark partisan divide, collected several tax cheats (including — you can’t make this up — the “performance czar”), pushed through a raft of ethics waivers, and seem to believe it’s all justified because they won.

The President seemed intent on supporting Daschle. But then came the blistering reaction even from mainstream press outlets, including this little tidbit:

Tom Daschle backed the patron who paid him a million-dollar salary and supplied him with a free car and driver for a job inside the Obama administration, two Democrats said Monday. Leo Hindery, whose InterMedia Partners employed the former Senate Majority Leader, had been mentioned as a possible Secretary of Commerce or U.S. Trade Representative. “Tom was pushing for him,” said one Democratic source. Obama’s aides rejected Daschle’s suggestion that a top job go to Hindery, for whose private equity fund Daschle had served as a rainmaker and adviser.

Yikes!

One is left wondering whether this is a series of hapless moves and mistakes (whose idea was it to let Pelosi draft the stimulus bill?) or evidence that this group is trapped in the paradigm of of Chicago-style politics. The former theory assumes they are incompetent; the latter, that they are brazenly partisan. But one is left feeling dazed and slightly despondent. This is the guy who ran against the D.C. culture. We are left musing why we can’t ever seem to get a capable chief executive devoid of glaring personnel problems.

As one of the trackers of Washington Conventional Wisdom, the Note, aptly summed it up: “Key to understanding the dynamics: Somewhere along the line, Obama lost some high ground.” Well, lots. Somewhere between the tax cheats and the grossly partisan stimulus bill that is in the process of being junked, the shiny new administration has lost a lot of its luster.

The speed and the depth of the descent into a pool of ethical and legislative goo is startling. So next time someone predicts a permanent realignment of politics, don’t believe it. The winners’ predisposition to mess up — spectacularly and immediately — should never be underestimated. But by the same token, the opposition must be ready to grasp the opportunity. And that remains a work in progress.


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