Clift: With Daschle Out, Why Not Dean for HHS?

It took the Obama team a month to come up with a new commerce secretary after Bill Richardson withdrew his name. At that pace, we could be looking at spring before we have a new health and human services secretary now that Tom Daschle has cut himself loose. The former Senate leader was exquisitely positioned for the job and seeing him go must be acutely painful for Obama. The two men had bonded personally and politically, and Obama gave Daschle more power than anyone else, a cabinet department from which to reform the health-care system along with a White House perch where he would have been in the thick of everything.

It doesn't look like Obama or his agents pushed Daschle overboard unless you count The New York Times editorial page as an arm of the White House, which some conservatives do. For Daschle, steeped in the swirl of Washington politics, to wake up Tuesday morning and read that the great gray lady was calling on him to step aside was to know that the end was near. Mortified by this turn of events and not wanting to put himself, or Obama or the country through it, he did the right thing.

It wasn't only the car and the driver and the unpaid taxes. It was a lifting of the curtain on an accepted practice in Washington: cashing in on public service. When Daschle first ran for the Senate in 1986, he bragged about driving a 1971 Pontiac while the Washington elites were in their limos. That ad came back to bite him, and the millions he made in four years since leaving the Senate, much of it from health-related interests, were turning him into the poster boy for the practices Obama campaigned against. The irony is that Daschle is a relatively mild version of the wretched excess that greases the revolving door between public service and the private sector. To the public's way of thinking, that only makes it worse because it's so normal, so usual, so taken for granted in the rarified air inside the Beltway.

Obama doesn't have a Plan B. Daschle was a shoo-in for the job, and there is no deep bench of runners-up vetted and ready to serve. Still, Obama may surprise us. In order to regain political momentum and convey the impression that while losing Daschle is a blow, it's not a body blow, he might want to have Daschle's successor ready to announce before the crocuses come up. One prominent Democrat has made no secret of the fact that he would love the job and that's Howard Dean. He's a doctor; his wife is a doctor; and he's not beholden to anyone as far as we know. In fact, Dean was running against the entrenched special interests in Washington back when the presidency was still just a gleam in Obama's eye.

Granted, Dean wouldn't have Daschle's finesse with the old bulls on Capitol Hill. He angered the Democrats in Congress when he ran for president in '04 on a platform that took on the party establishment for their support of the Iraq War and their timidity in opposing President Bush. He couldn't trade on personal relationships, but he's dogged, he knows the subject, and he's due some payback for pioneering the 50-state strategy that came into fruition with Obama.

Dean's nomination probably won't happen because he crossed swords with Rahm Emanuel over the allocation of resources during the lead-up to the congressional elections of '06. Dean was the Democratic Party chairman and focused on implementing his brainchild, a 50-state strategy for a party that had narrowed its electoral base to 16 states. Emanuel was leading the Democratic effort in the House to regain the majority. He wanted money targeted to districts where Democrats had a real chance to win while Dean, despite being the brunt of several shouting matches, stuck to his script of spreading money and staff around even into states Democrats wouldn't win in the short term.

The Obama team wasn't a fan of Dean's either during the '08 presidential campaign, faulting him for letting the controversy over Florida and Michigan drag on way too long. You would think that Dean would have been vindicated by now, but that's not how Washington works.

Still, Obama prides himself on how magnanimous he is, so you can't rule out that he might reward someone who like him was an early and consistent opponent of the Iraq War, who helped lead the party out of the wilderness and who many Democrats think has been badly treated. Obama certainly wouldn't have to give Dean the dual portfolio with the White House title that he had so easily conferred on Daschle. And Emanuel is a political realist. If Obama went with Dean, he wouldn't fall on his sword over it; he'd probably find other ways to get his revenge. That's how Washington works: don't get mad, get even.

Join the Discussion