News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, February 7, 2009

When political games displace work

As the story on Tom Daschle's tax reporting lapses developed, people who have worked closely with him knew that withdrawing his nomination as HHS secretary was a seriously-considered option. That information was circulating last weekend. The record of Daschle's character and accomplishments in his three decades of public service portrays a much different picture than what is painted on the South Dakota blogosphere.

The situation reinforces the growing recognition that while the Internet can be used as an important communication medium, its content must be treated as a genre that deserves skepticism, suspicion, and great selectivity. After the election in November, the fact-checking agencies shut down their operations. The propagation of disinformation is a way of life for many on the Internet, and everything posted on it needs to be examined for factual veracity. For people who care about truth as anything other than their own preferences, we need perpetual fact-checking.

The focus on Tom Daschle's belated tax payments and his choice to utilize a car and driver has trivialized the job he was nominated to do. His tax problems were a serious issue, but he addressed them and paid his bill. The inference promoted by opponents of health care reform that his lapses were deliberate fraud is a convenient way to block that reform by shifting the focus from the state of U.S. health care to tabloid gossip and speculation. Just as his house in D.C. was made a campaign issue in 2004 as an appeal to the sullen jealousies of voters who resent anyone's success, his use of a car and driver was inflated into a betrayal of South Dakota values. The puling petulance on the blogosphere defines what those values are in fact.

Daschle's withdrawal from the nomination occasioned great bipartisan elation on the blogosphere, but it leaves 50 million people who cannot afford health care with greatly diminished prospects for ever having it available to them. No one possesses the combination of knowledge of health care issues and the skill to guide real reform through Congress more than Tom Daschle.

Those who have worked with and for Tom Daschle knew that he would keep his situation regarding his tax payments and his nomination in a highly analytic perspective. As a leader, Daschle always carefully defined what jobs needed to be done and determined just what it would take to get them done. In fact, Pres. Obama made just that assessment when he nominated Daschle. Making health care accessible requires someone who knows the health care industry and understands the issues of both the health care consumers and the providers. While Daschle has been criticized for his consulting and speech-making to sectors of the health care industry, this experience demonstrates and adds to his knowledge. But in our culture, particularly in our state, being really good at what you do is a demerit. Although Obama won the election, our culture has been Palinized.

When Tom Daschle came to Congress thirty years ago, unlike his replacement in the Senate, he quickly attracted attention for diligence and his aggressive desire to learn. A Viet Nam era veteran himself, he led the fight to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange and to see that veterans received badly needed medical treatment for all the physical and mental disorders that were inflicted upon them. He also became a leading expert on and advocate for rural health care. During the agricultural collapse of the 1980s, Daschle assumed leadership in taking measures and setting up programs to help keep families on farms and to provide opportunities for those who were displaced. During the disastrous winters of the late 1990's, when livestock was killed by blizzards and communities were devastated by floods, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson led the efforts to see that the people affected received emergency and recovery aid. All this leadership attracted notice. Tom Daschle earned a reputation for his diligence and effectiveness in representing the people and serving their needs and interests.

Consequently, Daschle earned leadership roles on important committees and in the Senate. His colleagues wanted him to extend the focus of his abilities from the state to the nation. Although his record in vigorously representing his state is consistent all through his term as Senator, many of his constituents feel that embracing larger interests in the course of one's duties is a betrayal. For many, South Dakota is a cultural nursery that regards its care-givers as bonded servants. Woe be to someone who appears to break those bonds.

In contrast to the vigor and competence of Tom Daschle and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin when they first came to Congress, the record of John Thune was a demonstration of fecklessness and irrelevance. Thune did not seem to think that the northern part of South Dakota was part of the state’s geography. He did not think a service office in Aberdeen, the state's third largest city, was needed. Members of his party had to coerce him into acknowledging that the northeastern region had political issues to address.

When officials and residents wanted a by-pass for Highway 218 so that trucks did not need to drive through the center of town and realized it was time to provide four-lane access to Aberdeen from I-29 as a transportation facility essential to the economy, Thune disapproved. His argument was that it would cost money. Again, members of his party insisted that he at least inform himself of those projects and dragged him into an eventual grudging support.

But for the state at large, Thune's feckless bumbling was even more ridiculous. As a congressman, he belonged to none of the agricultural caucuses that monitor agriculture and make recommendations for government action. He had no interest at all in water development for the state. It, too, cost money. Not until campaign opponent Curt Hohn pointed out Thune's irrelevancy to South Dakota interests did he make any attempt to inform himself of those issues and become part of the caucuses that studied and formed polices on those areas of concern.

The main point of his campaign for senator was to insist that Tom Daschle's successes in Washington, D.C., were betrayals of the folks back home in South Dakota. A majority of the folks back home in South Dakota bought it. The only thing Thune had going for him was his personal attacks against Daschle. And the folks back home bought it. But he is a presentable looking chap who can read the scripts provided for him by his hired character assassins and party hacks.

Thune has one other strength. He is very good at insinuating himself into taking credit for work done by other people. His actual efforts in instituting action and implementing vital programs does not compare with Daschle's or Herseth Sandlin's. It boils down to a matter of competence.

As many commentators have pointed out, Tom Daschle's nomination to Secretary of Health and Human Services would have been approved, even though it would have been a grueling process. Tom Daschle knows when such a fight would detract and distract from the real job to be done. This is a democracy, and there comes a time when people have to live with the choices they make. In the matter of reforming health care, a large portion of the nation has chosen to dwell on contriving resentful gossip rather than confronting the problems of 50 million people who cannot afford health care. Daschle realized that his late tax payments would be used as an obstacle to reform, and so he decided it best to withdrew from the HHS secretary nomination.

The cost of health care for those who can afford it and its unavailability for the 50 million Americans who can't is a major factor in our economy. The Republican attitude is that we cannot afford health care reform. They trot out their tired tripe about socialized medicine and government interference with private enterprise and offer no acknowledgment that health care bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. and that 50 million people cannot afford health insurance. The Republicans regard those 50 million much the same way that Hitler did the old, infirm, and handicapped he referred to as "useless eaters." The conservatives seem to regard them as the "worthless workers." Their attitude seems to be to let those 50 million get sick and die. That way they won't be a drag on the economy. Or a burden on taxpayers.

And ffter all, Tom Daschle's use of a chauffeur driven car for which he made belated tax payments is one hell of a lot more important than 50 million people who can't afford health insurance.

The republic once again has made a choice. It will have to live with it. Except for the 50 million for whom that is not even a consideration.

{See The Columbia Journalism Review for more on health care possibilities.]

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States