No need to fumble for words that sum up the stew of hypocrisy, arrogance and insiderism that is the unfolding saga of Tom Daschle. This is the audacity of audacity.

Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader turned multimillionaire power broker, is defending his nomination to become secretary of health and human services despite having failed to pay all his taxes, despite having failed to tell President Barack Obama’s transition team about his six-figure nonpayment before his appointment was announced, and despite having raked in about a quarter of a million dollars in fees for giving his insider insight to health insurers and others that the department he wishes to run happens to regulate.

Rush Limbaugh now has the talking points of his most fevered right-wing dreams.

Obama’s problems are bigger than Rush. With the Daschle nomination and the president’s inexplicable support of yet another Cabinet appointee who somehow didn’t notice his tax problems until he was nominated, Obama has undermined what was supposed to be a central tenet of his administration: that he would sweep away the rules under which Washington cossets itself in a surreal bubble where lobbyists, members of Congress, industry heavyweights, fat-cat donors and other insiders do their own bidding first and put the people’s interests last.

Since his re-election defeat in 2004, Daschle has mastered the art of turning humiliating political loss into high-roller riches, much of it coming from his work for a well-connected law firm where he didn’t technically operate as a lobbyist but gave policy advice to companies with business before the government.

But trading on his name, his political connections, his ability to tap into Democratic donors and becoming wealthy by virtue of his past public service isn’t what has Daschle in trouble. Failure to pay taxes is.

The Obama administration now has distinguished itself for lowering the bar so that tax avoidance is no impediment to high public office. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s failure to pay Social Security and other taxes he owed while working for the International Monetary Fund slowed his confirmation, but didn’t derail it. Geithner explained the tax problems as the result of inadvertent oversight, even though Geithner’s employer gave explicit directions on what was owed and how to pay.

Daschle shouldn’t be allowed such excuses. While serving in the Senate he was a member of the Finance Committee, the very panel that writes the tax laws and oversees their administration. The same committee is now deciding whether to clear his nomination for a full Senate vote.

The rationale for confirming Geithner was that he is a financial wizard — one of a handful of people, it was argued, with the experience and intellect necessary to manage the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression. But surely there is more than one Democrat capable of managing the Department of Health and Human Services. And undoubtedly there is more than one — there are perhaps hundreds — as committed to the cause of revamping the health care system.

Daschle isn’t indispensable. But he is indefensible.

Not many Americans manage to underpay their taxes by the whopping sums Daschle overlooked. The $140,000 he paid in January to satisfy the taxes and interest is nearly triple the median household income. That is, the median income of $50,233 reported by the Census Bureau before the layoffs, pay cuts, reduced hours and other hardships of the current economic crisis burdened average families. The free use of a chauffeured limousine provided by a business associate who happens to be a big Democratic donor — the source of the unreported income at the root of Daschle’s tax troubles — is a joy ride to political hell. I hope Daschle enjoyed it.

Some Democratic senators have rallied to defend their former leader. The demonstration merely reinforces the narrative that the rules can be bent by, and for, a member of their club.

This is all uncomfortably reminiscent of the Bush administration’s abhorrent interpretation of what constitutes proper ethics. Perhaps no laws have been broken — but since when is that the standard for holding high public office?

When Vice President Joe Biden said during the presidential campaign that it is a patriotic duty to pay taxes, I agreed. So did most of us who believe in the ability of government to better Americans’ lives. But we also believe this responsibility is to be borne by plumbers and power brokers alike.

If Daschle and the Senate Democrats still believe this, they have their own duty: It is to end this sorry spectacle now.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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