There's a chink in Tom Daschle's suit of armor. The Washington veteran tapped by President Barack Obama to lead his health care reform crusade has a tax problem. And he is supposed to be one of the new administration's change agents - charged with replacing Washington's fat cat insider culture with a clean, open and responsible regime.
Mr. Daschle's reputation from his days in the Senate is of a model politician: clean-cut, well-spoken and smart. Since losing his Senate seat in 2004, he has made more than $5 million as a lawyer, lobbyist and adviser to a private equity firm.
Six days before the first Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to be secretary of health and human services, Mr. Daschle paid $140,000 in back taxes and interest. The payments cover 2005 through 2007, partly for the former senator's free use of a car and driver provided by the equity firm and partially for failure to pay taxes on $83,000 in consulting fees for the same company. An Obama administration official says it was all "a stupid mistake" that Mr. Daschle discovered and paid for. But an uncomfortable question arises: If Mr. Daschle had not been nominated, would he ever have paid this tax?
Still, Mr. Daschle's friends in the Senate, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, predict it won't stop his confirmation. Mr. Reid's spokesman described Mr. Daschle as "the best person to help reform health care in this country." It's reminiscent of the argument that some financial institutions are too big to fail in spite of their blunders. Maybe some people are too important not to be confirmed, regardless of their missteps.
Despite his apologies, Mr. Daschle should recognize that he has tarnished his reputation, made the task of achieving health care reform more daunting and contributed to Americans' poor opinion of Washington insiders. (The new Democratic Congress has just a 40 percent approval rating.) Any further ugly revelations should send him out the door.