The great puzzle in the Tom Daschle tax scam is how President Obama's vetter's missed it. Or as Obama himself sheepishly admitted in an interview, "I screwed up." The simple answer is Obama's vetting team did ask Daschle, as well as then Treasury secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner and Nancy Killefer his would be nominee as chief performance officer pointed questions about their taxes. They either lied about it, had a memory lapse, or were confused about what they did or didn't owe. But that doesn't really explain why Obama's machine sputtered.
During the campaign the Obama political machine smashed every known standard for how to run a virtual hitch free, efficient political campaign. It paid meticulous attention to every detail, big and little; whether formulating detailed policy papers, internet use, and donor and voter mailings, fund raising, coordinating volunteers, putting up a model website, staff hires, and corralling a crack team of advisors. It tossed out in lightning speed a fact filled response or rebuttal to any and every attack point by Republican rival John McCain. It produced reams of supporting data to make policy points during debates and for interviews.
Taxes, of all things, were the big hit point by McCain against Obama. And Obama parried it every time. He churned out some of the most detailed, fine point numbers on tax policy to make the case that his plan was far superior to anything that McCain proposed on tax reform. Yet his machine still broke down on something as elementary as whether his three nominees paid their taxes or not.
That was part of the problem. It was too elementary a question; something that could be too easily checked. And it was. Every prospective nominee had to fill out a 63 point questionnaire. The questionnaire was so detailed that it raised eyebrows and even drew some criticism that it pried too deeply into a job candidate's personal affairs.
Taxes were an important part of the questions asked. A prospective nominee simply did not have the option to lie or fudge on whether they paid their taxes or not. It was not like trying to conceal or deny whether they had an affair, hired an undocumented worker, or saw a shrink. Tax filings and records are the most basic of public documents and in theory they are thoroughly scrutinized. The vetters are not supposed to rely on let alone accept the word of the prospective nominee that they paid what they owed.
Nothing angers Americans more than the thought that the rich and well-healed routinely duck, dodge, scam and swindle the tax man and the infrequent times they are caught red handed scream that it was a math or clerical error, oversight, or ignorance and skip away with a light hand slap. That was Daschle and Geithner's cop out excuse. Meanwhile, the little guy gets squeezed by the IRS for every dime owed. And if they try to dodge their bill get hit with hefty penalties, fines, and even jail time. But the little guy taxpayer is not part of the too clubby circle of political or corporate insiders. Daschle and Geithner are. Obama deemed them indispensable point men in his drive to break the nation's economic freefall and to remake the health care system.
This made it easy to overlook, ignore, or simply take on blind faith their sworn word that they were as pure as Caesar's wife in their dealings. They weren't. Not knowing that was not just a case of Obama's well-oiled machine momentarily slipping out of gear. It shows that it's a lot easier to run a campaign machine than to run a government.
Obama says that it won't happen again. The machine will have to be retooled to make sure that it doesn't.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009). learnhowobamawon.blogspot.com