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Don't Mourn for Daschle

Tom Daschle has, under his usual cloud of scandal, withdrawn as President Obama's nominee to serve in the critical Cabinet position of Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Republicans think they have dealt the new president a blow.

In fact, by opposing Daschle so strenuously, and appropriately, Republicans and a handful of principled Democratic senators (who had quietly let the White House know they were not going to back the nomination) have done the new president and the nation a favor.

The scandal over Daschle's lavish lifestyle and failure to pay taxes simply emphasized why the former Senate Majority Leader was exactly the wrong choice to serve in the administration of a Democratic president who aspires to make a break with the worst of the compromises that characterized his party during the Bush-Cheney era.

No top Democrat did more to undermine opposition to the Republican regime than Daschle, who as the majority leader during the first years of George Bush's presidency put so much emphasis on the "loyal" part of the term "loyal opposition" that he failed his party and his country.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Daschle schemed with the White House to organize a bailout for the domestic airline industry -- for which Daschle's wife was a lobbyist -- that made last fall's Wall Street bailout look like a model of fiscal accountability.

Then, Daschle worked with the Bush administration to undermine opposition to the Patriot Act in 2001 -- preventing Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold from introducing amendments that would have addressed vital civil liberties concerns.

A year later, Daschle worked in lockstep with the administration to secure congressional authorization in 2002 for an attack on Iraq.

Daschle even blocked Democratic efforts to defend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty when Bush moved to withdraw the U.S. from the arms control agreement. As Feingold explained to this writer during the 2002 wrangling over Bush's assault on a treaty the Senate had approved by an 88-2 margin in 1972: "I wanted the leadership to take a lead. But when we contacted Daschle's office, they just weren't interested."

When he ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 2004, the Daschle campaign appealed to South Dakota voters with television ads that featured a picture of the Democratic leader hugging the Republican president and a headline that read: "Daschle: Time to Unite Behind Troops, Bush."

When Daschle briefly entertained the notion of bidding for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, he found that he had no base of support among grassroots Democrats, who correctly viewed him as an example of just about everything that was wrong with the party's congressional leadership during Bush's first term.

Rejected by voters in his homestate and unable to compete nationally, Daschle pulled a Dick Cheney move. The South Dakotan attached himself to the campaign of a viable contender in hopes that he might find a path to power as a member of the next Democratic administration.

Daschle worked hard for Obama, using all his dubious DC connections to advance the campaign at points where the freshman senator from Illinois was battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nod.

Obama should have developed doubts about Daschle's value as a political operative last June when, despite the former senator's prodding, South Dakota Democratic primary voters backed Clinton.

But Obama was appreciative of Daschle's early support, as became obvious when the weird pick of the former majority leader to serve at HHS was made. (Despite the fact that he recently wrote a self-serving book on the issue, no one remembered Daschle as a particularly serious player when it came to health care issues. And he certainly was not a supporter of real reform, as has been noted in this space.)

Unfortunately, Daschle's dubious record did not slow his progress.

It took an old-fashioned scandal unpaid taxes to knock the former senator out of contention for the powerful post he coveted.

No one -- or, at least, no one who is invested either in securing real health care reform or seeing an Obama presidency succeed -- should mourn Daschle's departure.

Daschle was always a better fit with Bush's administration than Obama's.

© 2009 The Nation

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation and associate editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. A co-founder of the media reform organization Free Press, Nichols is is co-author with Robert W. McChesney of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy - from The New Press. Nichols' latest book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism.

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