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The Art of the Withdrawal

I come to praise Nancy Killefer, not to bury her. Yes, it’s certainly ironic that the hotshot McKinsey consultant whom Barack Obama tapped to become our federal government’s first ever chief performance officer did such a bad job managing her own performance that she failed to pay employment taxes on her household help. Because of that, she made the right decision earlier this week to withdraw her nomination as Obama’s performance czar. But there was one performance in which Killefer did do a masterful job: the performance art of the withdrawal.

By announcing that she was pulling her nomination on the same morning that Tom Daschle announced his own tax-induced withdrawal, and by making the decision before her tax problems took the spotlight, Killefer made sure that the story of her political fall would be chewed over for hours rather than days. Indeed, after the Daschle story broke, Killefer’s downfall was relegated to a news brief. As it turned out, Killefer, a relative political novice, showed the sort of political skills that have been in short supply among the cascade of political figures who’ve had to make their own painful withdrawals in recent weeks.

Consider Daschle. He actually didn’t do that bad a job managing the withdrawal of his nomination for secretary of health and human services--at least in terms of its impact on him. But he did a lousy job of mitigating its affect on Obama. Although The New York Times had come out against Daschle’s nomination, there didn’t appear to be any groundswell of opposition to it on the Hill--where he’s still well-liked from his days in the Senate--nor among liberal activists, who seemed willing to hold their noses about Daschle’s post-Senate buck-raking if it meant they’d have a better chance of getting universal health care. That’s why his decision to withdraw surprised so many people--and provoked such an outpouring of sympathy and support. I’m sure Daschle was looking forward to being HHS secretary, but it couldn’t have been a bad consolation prize to have everyone from Andrea Mitchell to Ted Kennedy to Obama himself line up this week to sing his praises as a selfless public servant. By getting out before things got ugly, Daschle managed to emerge with his reputation still intact. (And, as Frank Foer noted, now that there is little chance of him ever returning to government, he can really get down to some serious buck-raking.)

Obama’s reputation, however, certainly suffered. After declaring that he “absolutely” supported Daschle just 24 hours before he withdrew, the president wound up with egg on his face. What’s more, Daschle’s withdrawal came on the day Obama had scheduled a series of interviews with the network news anchors to pitch the stimulus package; instead of talking stimulus, though, he was forced to repeatedly apologize and castigate himself over “the mistake” of nominating Daschle in the first place. Worst of all, Daschle’s withdrawal was so sudden that Obama and his advisors hadn’t even begun the process of coming up with potential replacements. As a shell-shocked David Axelrod conceded, the White House didn’t have a “Plan B.”

Bill Richardson’s withdrawal as Obama’s Commerce secretary nominee was pretty much the inverse of Daschle’s: bad for the withdrawer, but good for Obama. For one thing, Richardson had the misfortune of being the first Obama nominee to withdraw, leading media outlets like the Washington Post to remark at the time that his withdrawal “marks the first visible crack in what had been one of the smoothest presidential transitions in modern history.” Given how smoothly things had been going, it was generally assumed that Richardson--and not Obama’s vetters--had screwed things up. This was an impression Obama’s side was more than happy to feed, leaking to ABC News that Richardson hadn’t been “forthcoming” with transition officials about a federal investigation into whether, as New Mexico governor, he steered a state contract toward a big financial backer. Given that said federal investigation has only metastasized since Richardson’s withdrawal--with the feds reportedly asking the Democratic Governors Association, which Richardson headed for four years, for documents related to the contract--his credibility, and not Obama’s, has suffered.

But the recent withdrawal that went badly for everybody--the murder-suicide of political withdrawals, if you will--has to be Caroline Kennedy’s decision to pull her name off of New York Governor David Paterson’s list of potential replacements for Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate. First, there was Kennedy’s dithering. After openly auditioning for the seat for more than a month, she suddenly got cold feet on the eve of decision day, reportedly calling Paterson to tell him that she wanted to withdraw, only to waver in her decision for a few hours, before finally deciding again--and for good--to withdraw. Then, there was her excuse: Kennedy (or at least her surrogates) initially told reporters that she withdrew because of her uncle Ted’s brain cancer--which apparently pissed off him and his supporters.

But Kennedy wasn’t the only one who screwed up. Perhaps because Paterson felt completely pole-axed by her withdrawal--he was reportedly on the verge of actually picking Kennedy for the seat, a story Kennedy’s surrogates were only too happy to pedal--the governor decided to kick Kennedy on her way out the door. People close to the governor began leaking the story (since determined to be bogus) that she withdrew because of a tax problem and nanny visa issue, and generally disparaging her qualifications--which only occasioned return fire from Kennedy’s side. In the end, both of them emerged from the debacle diminished.

Which brings us back to Nancy Killefer. “Who?” you may ask. Exactly.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor of The New Republic.