Former Sen. Tom Daschle might have survived the maelstrom and survived to take a job at the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services, but history might reflect that the choice, ultimately, was his own.
Aside from running for president, Daschle's decision today was undoubtedly the most important of his life. And while we can speculate about White House pressure, about the themes of transparency and double standards, about purity and hypocrisy, what may have trumped the chance that he could win was this: for two weeks, Daschle has spent most of his time in Boston, Massachusetts, and not preparing for the confirmation hearing; he has spent it with one of his four brothers who is desperately ill. Daschle is all South Dakota reserve, even in private. He is very sensitive to public opinion, and his public image has taken a major beating. He was portrayed as a tax delinquent, a guy who lived by a different set of standards. Before he decided to drop out, aides said that Daschle had not erected a steel barrier around him; he was sensitive to the public condemnation, and he was hurt by it. He probably concluded that he would not have been able to be as effective as he needed to be. Whether that judgment is true -- well, we can leave it to the counterfactualists.
The fact remains that until late last night, not a single senator, Republican or Democrat, came out against Daschle's confirmation. This morning, there was only one -- Sen. Jim DeMint. Rumors abound that some Democrats, like Iowa's Tom Harkin, were preparing to announce their opposition, but those rumors seem to be unfounded; Harkin (according to Fox News) was weeping when he learned Daschle had withdrawn his name. Last night, two senior administration officials told me that Daschle's nomination was on track; one told me that VP Joe Biden wasn't so sure, and so he was making calls to his colleagues, just in case. Perhaps Daschle's nomination was in trouble, and because of a disjuncture in the White House, the depth of the situation was not realized.
Daschle was also boxed in by the timing. If Daschle had remembered to check on the car situation earlier, or if he had disclosed the matter publicly before he paid the taxes, he might not have faced the maelstrom that greeted the disclosure. In December, the Republican National Committee and Congressional Republicans would have been incapable of exploiting Daschle's tax delinquency. Daschle disclosed the car-and-driver tax payments to the finance committee and the White House on January 4. Perhaps the White House, being aware of Treasury Sec. Tim Geithner's tax problems, decided that they could only fight one battle at a time.