What happened to Tom Daschle? Why did he screw up like this given his clear ambition of returning to government? My theory: His wife Linda is a powerful lobbyist in town. And when you live among the city’s top echelon of lobbyists, you become socialized into that world. This isn’t to smear lobbyists. There are actually many decent men and women in that profession, whose existence is in some important way vital to the functioning of our democracy. But there’s obviously a lot of excess, too. So, perhaps Daschle’s moral boundaries and sense of judgment shifted over time. In this reading of his actions, he wasn’t self-consciously chasing dollars; he was adhering to the norms of his particuliar class of lobbyists.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about the outcome of this affair. Last night, I found myself basically persuaded by Jon Cohn’s instrumentalist defense of Daschle. And now I worry about the fate of health care reform. But this incident also highlights the dangers of the old revolving door. When lobbyists come to serve in the highest ranks of government, they don’t just bring expertise and experience. They also bring a set of cultural mores that might govern how they do business and that might shape their everyday decisions. Daschle was going to be more than the steward of reform. He was slated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services—a job where you would want someone with sound moral judgment.