Former South Dakota Democratic Senator Tom Daschle was an early and prominent supporter of Senator Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency, which explains why a politician now nearly four years removed from a defeat at the polls, courtesy of John Thune, has been given a prominent speaking role at the Democratic convention today. (Full disclosure #1: I worked, for a brief time, on a consulting project with Senator Daschle.)
Daschle, it seems clear, is not ready to close the book on his political career. His involuntary departure from the Senate in January 2005 apparently left him with a yearning for an Act II, even if such a role would certainly entail less power than he wielded as leader of his party in the Senate. His mentor, former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, left the upper chamber on his own terms in 1995, and appears more than satisfied with his flourishing career as an elder statesman. Mitchell’s public roles in recent years — peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and an investigation of the use of steroids in Major League Baseball — have been the kinds of assignments only retired-and-not-coming-back politicians are asked to take on.
Daschle, by contrast, seems to be very consciously positioning himself for a return to the Washington fray. He signed up as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress
, and, for a time, he was mentioned as a potential Democratic candidate for president — before pulling his name from the list of contenders. Shortly thereafter, he endorsed newcomer Obama, becoming one of the first Washington insiders to sign up with the long-shot candidate, and he has been a top counselor to the candidate ever since. Which has made the curious wonder: What does Daschle want in return from Obama for signing on so early? VP? Although he submitted the paperwork, Daschle said he did not want the job nor did he seem to be under serious consideration for it. White House Chief of Staff, a la Leon Panetta? No, Daschle said, that doesn’t interest him either.
It seems the only job that really gets Daschle’s heart pounding is . . . Secretary of Health and Human Services? Granted, that’s not a post most ambitious Republican politicians covet, given what’s involved in a conservative administration. HHS is ground zero in the battle for limited government, and Republicans have lost far more of the skirmishes there than they have won. HHS spending now stands at $670 billion annually, and counting, and the agency employs nearly 64,000 workers.
But if your ambition is to remake American health care based on an activist vision, and you think you have the legislative game plan to pull it off, is there a better post than HHS Secretary?
Daschle seems to think that perhaps there isn’t. He let it be known in June that he wouldn’t mind playing a prominent role pushing for a reform plan in an Obama Administration, and that could mean taking the top job at HHS.
For the most part, Daschle’s views on health-care policy are predictable for a Democratic politician with long service in the Congress. (Full disclosure #2: Daschle published a book on health care in 2008, with two co-authors, which I have not read; his views on reform discussed here are pulled from numerous news stories and other articles he has written outlining his views.) Like other Democrats, the goal that animates him is universal coverage, and he distrusts market forces and financial incentives in the health sector. Consequently, the toolbox he is looking through is the same one other Democrats are also reaching for: mandates on individuals and businesses to buy or offer coverage; new government-run insurance options for the under-65 population; a national governmental agency offering anyone who wants it to sign up for insurance outside of work; large new subsidy programs; and much more government involvement in determining what is and is not effective medical care.