Why Daschle’s Demise is No Surprise

And so the learning process begins. The cumulative fallout from the Richardson/Daschle/Killefer nomination withdrawals is working its way through the punditocracy, with predictable media headlines.  The theme du jour seems to be that Obama pushed too many nominees too fast in disregard of his own commitment to bring new transparency and higher ethical standards to Washington. He has been hoisted on his own petard of promising to bring change to Washington – a promise he undercut by nominating experienced Washington hands to key cabinet positions. The failed nominations have led some pundits – academics included – to proclaim that the veneer is already fading from the shiny new Obama Presidency. According to Anne Kornblut and Michael Shear at the Washington Post: “Daschle’s withdrawal serves as a rebuke to Obama officials who had brushed aside tax issue concerns” (story here).   Even academics are piling on: “At first, I thought this was a vetting problem, but now I think it’s hubris – that they somehow think they’re so powerful and so popular that the normal rules don’t apply,” said Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions and a professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Let’s be clear here: this reaction is nonsense. As I reminded a USAToday reporter (see story here), almost every president in the post-Watergate era has seen at least one cabinet-level nominee fail the confirmation process.  Here’s a quick overview:

President          Official/Cabinet Position      Charge               Disposition
Carter              Bert Lance – OMB Director     Bad loans         Confirmed but Resigned
Carter              Ted Sorensen – CIA              Policy Bias         Withdrew
Bush I              John Tower – Defense  drinking/womanizing      Voted Down
Clinton             Zoe Baird – Attorney General nanny/taxes        Withdrew
Clinton             Kimba Wood – Attorney General   nanny           Withdrew
Bush II             Linda Chavez – Labor              Immigration      Withdrew

Why would Obama be any different?  To believe all his nominees would go through unscathed is to suggest that his election has somehow rescinded the laws of normal politics.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I see no evidence that this is the case; the presidency under Obama still operates under the familiar institutional and political constraints affecting all modern presidents.  Do the failed nominations suggest a certain amount of hubris on the part of Obama and his senior staff?  Sure.  Did he help hoist himself on his own petard by entering office proclaiming that his administration would adhere to a higher code of ethics?  Undoubtedly.  But we need to keep this in perspective. All presidents enter office claiming that they will kick out the moneychangers occupying the political temple and operate under a more stringent code of ethical conduct. .And they all do so motivated in part by a combination of arrogance, naïveté and hopefulness. Who can blame them?  In most cases they took office having defied the conventional wisdom by winning election to the highest position in the land. It’s hard not to believe your own press clippings.

Obama is no different than previous presidents in this regard. But we need to understand that despite his claim to be an agent of change, the political fundamentals are still in play here. Obama’s arrogance didn’t cause the nomination failures – the post-Watergate era-constructed nomination process did. Simply put, it is almost impossible for any public figure active in national politics to emerge unscathed during the confirmation process today.  Tighter financial disclosure and conflict of interest laws, a more transparent nomination process and the combined scrutiny of the mainstream media and the blogosphere, all against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized Congress and an active interest group universe, means that it is unrealistic to expect all of Obama’s nominees to win confirmation from the Senate. It is the nature of the appointment process today that the president is going to lose a major cabinet nominee.

The real story here, I argue, is how well Obama responded to this incident. Clearly he has learned from the Jeremiah Wright debacle (another reminder that he benefitted from the closely contested nomination race). When scandal arises, confront it, admit your mistake, and cut your losses.  He’s done that very well in the last 24 hours. To me, the mark of an effective president is not that he doesn’t make mistakes – all of them do. It is how quickly they learn from them. On that score, Obama has, so far, demonstrated sound political judgment.

A final thought: the real impact of Daschle’s departure will be felt down the road, if and when Obama embarks on health care reform. Daschle was uniquely suited to shepherding reform legislation through Congress, and his presence will be missed. Even here, however, Obama has a chance to capitalize on Daschle’s departure. As I’ll explain in a later post, the decision to make Daschle both the head of Health and Human Services and give him a White House position as “health czar” was a mistake, since it meant that Daschle would be the sole conduit of information on health reform to the President. Obama can’t afford to have the centerpiece of his domestic legislation controlled by a single individual. As we learned from the Clinton presidency, when it comes to health care specifically (and I would argue policy in general), no president should allow himself to rely on a single policy adviser.  Instead, competition among staff and cabinet members is the key to producing better policy. Let’s hope that when he nominates Daschle’s successor that individual is NOT given a White House position as well.

The larger point of the day:  it is foolhardy to think Obama’s election somehow signifies the suspension of normal politics – that his presidency will operate under a different dynamic in which the traditional constraints on presidential leadership will be lifted. All the evidence so far suggests precisely the opposite.   The sooner Obama – and we – learn this, the better off we all will be.


  1. Don’t you have some crazy paper arguing about competition among staff members within the President’s administration? Care to write up, oh, three or four paragraphs to that effect for the Obama adminstration? Just wondering…

  2. Umm – well, yes, I’ve written a bit on this topic, including a recent paper, coauthored with my colleague Amy Yuen, that promises to be on the cutting edge of political science research once it is published. :~)

    Interested readers can download an early version of this paper at:

    download paper here

  3. Back to the original post — exactly right, in my view. Daschle was a key Obama friend and mentor from way back, and Obama cut him loose in about a second. The other smart decision — which did not necessarily follow from the first — was to also nix Daschle as head of the White House health care office. HHS and the White House should speak with one voice on health care, so the WHO person should also be the HHS person. Looks like they’re sticking with their original plan there, which is wise.

    Contrast this to George W. Bush’s insistence that Don Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales stick around, even when they themselves recognized their inability to effectively carry out their jobs.

  4. Actually, Bert, if you reread my initial post you’ll see that you and I are in fundamental disagreement re: whether the WHO person should also hold a cabinet post. I strongly argue (based in part on the paper Amy Yuen and are writing) that by combining posts under one adviser, you allow your policy options to be determined by a single individual who does not share your perspective. The lesson of the Clinton health care effort is clear: do not allow a single individual (Ira Magaziner!) to develop reform policy on your behalf. Instead, by all means induce competition, in the form of dueling advisers, in the policy development system. (BTW, this is the biggest staffing mistake Obama has made so far – excessive use of policy “czars” in the White House. I’ll be posting an extended discussion of this in a bit.) Bottom line: Daschle’s removal gives Obama an opportunity to correct this mistake by dividing the policy chores between the White House policy staff and the careerists at HHS.

  5. I should also add that I don’t find the Rumsfeld/Gonzalez analogy very instructive. The politics of removal are vastly different when you are dealing with someone who has been in office a number of years. I’ll discuss this in a later post, but suffice to say the real comparison here is what to do during the confirmation phase, before you have sunk costs in the form of a confirmed appointee. In this instance I think Obama followed Bush’s lead with Chavez quite closely.

  6. There you go, Dickinson, highlighting the one point of disagreement in a post where I was fundamentally agreeing with you.

    Anyway, I thought the lesson of the Clinton health care failure was that you shouldn’t shut HHS and Congress out of the policy-making process and reinvent the wheel with a staff of isolated OEB policy wonks. Daschle would have worked out well because he would have been a good bridge between all the key institutions.

    Actually, to be honest, I’m more convinced by Skocpol’s argument in _Boomerang_ that the staffing decisions get way too much blame for the health care failure and that the package was doomed by the deficit-conscious policy environment that backed the Clinton administration into a heavily regulatory — and therefore very vulnerable — corner.

    On the Rumsfeld and Gonzales point, economists teach us not to pay attention to sunk costs in making decisions about the future.

  7. Bert – We can debate whether the staffing decisions may in fact get overweighted in explaining the Clinton’s failure to reform health care (for what it’s worth, I think Skocpol is wrong). But it does not change my essential point: all other things being equal, using independent advising lines is more likely to produce an effective policy than relying on a single advising channel. Policy czars rarely “bridge” different institutional viewpoints. Instead, they push their own policy preferences in the guise of the “compromise” choice. Put another way, Magaziner didn’t reinvent the careerists’ wheel – he substituted his own wheel for what the HHS careerists were recommending, and it’s not clear that Clinton ever understood the HHS alternative. That the Magaziner package was “doomed” by the regulatory environment is a strong reason why Clinton ought never to have signed on to it in the first place, particularly when Democrats in Congress signaled that they would accept a more modest alternative.

    Economists are correct about sunk costs and future decisions. But my admittedly poorly worded reference to “sunk costs” was to the as yet avoidable costs that Obama would have needed to incur to get Daschle confirmed, not to what Bush had already spent on Rumsfeld or Gonzalez.

  8. I agree with Matt in that there should be two different people for the positions of head of HHS and White House “health czar”. To create the best health care policies Obama needs different sources of advice that represent different perspectives. The “health czar” will probably share Obama’s opinions on health care but he also needs an outsider to the WHO who will bring more ideas to the table. Fostering debate and forcing compromise before presenting policy reforms to Congress makes it more likely that legislation will pass.

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