If only Tom Daschle had paid all of his taxes

Think back to those heady days of late 2008, just after Barack Obama was elected president but before he actually had to govern. He was busy pondering his dream team for the important Cabinet positions — Timothy Geithner, despite some minor tax problems (some $43,000), to Treasury; Eric Holder to Justice, Hillary Clinton to State, and Robert Gates to stay on at Defense.

Obama needed a commanding leader at the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department because he was determined to be the president who finally made national healthcare happen — and happen soon, as in the first part of his first term.

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In December Obama announced his choice for HHS. No, not the clueless former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), but former senator (he lost his seat in 2004 to Republican John Thune) from South Dakota Tom Daschle.

Daschle is a little guy, but he’s tough, shrewd, and as a former Democratic majority leader, he understood power. He knew how to negotiate, and that meant sometimes negotiating with Republicans. (Healthcare reform was a particular interest; he had by then written one book on the subject and would co-write another in 2010.)

After his defeat, Daschle, who is not a lawyer, signed on as a “special public policy adviser” at the Washington office of the Atlanta law firm Alston & Bird. (Though not officially a lobbyist, never having registered as one, he was close, and he was married to an aviation lobbyist.)

Daschle had the usual complex ties of a Washington bigwig, and it was soon discovered that he had neglected to pay $128,203 in taxes the three years previous. Some was unreported income he received for advising a private equity fund; some involved the personal use of a car and driver given to him by an employer. Like Geithner, who claimed he did his own taxes using Turbo Tax, Daschle said he had made an innocent mistake. He filed amended returns and promptly paid what he owed plus $11,964 in interest.

Obama stuck with Daschle as long as he could. “The president has confidence that Sen. Daschle is the right person to lead the fight for healthcare reform,” press secretary, Robert Gibbs said. But Obama had demonized lobbyists during the campaign, and he saw that Daschle’s path through confirmation would be difficult and that the presidential honeymoon would be ruined by charges of hypocrisy. So Obama apologized and, in February 2009, Daschle withdrew, explaining that his appointment would be a “distraction” that could harm the goal of “affordable healthcare for every American.” Obama then turned to Sebelius.

On “Meet The Press” Sunday, David Gregory, discussing the horrendous rollout of ObamaCare, asked, "where is Bobby Kennedy? ... Who has got the muscle in the White House to get it [the website] done and make sure the president gets what he wants?”

Daschle had the muscle; Sebelius did not.

Who can resist asking, would things have been different if Daschle had paid his taxes in full and on time? I think yes. He would have asked the right questions, demanded answers; he would not have crossed his fingers and hoped the website worked when it was switched on Oct. 1.

One of the reasons often given for Obama’s refusal to fire Sebelius is how in the world would he get another nominee through the Senate. Obama should take on that fight while Democrats are still in control. Daschle was well liked in the Senate, and he might just make it — assuming there are no further innocent mistakes on his tax returns.