A measuring stick for scandals

Along with Tom Daschle, Tim Geithner and Nancy Killefer, plus Joe Biden, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel and all the president’s vexing vetters, I also must share some the blame for the sudden puncture and deflation of Barack Obama’s Glorious Expectations Balloon.

For I had in my attic an ideal low-tech instrument that would have enabled President Obama to instantly take the true measure of the taxing transgressions of his troubled nominees. And I should have rushed it over to the White House, so Team Obama would understand at once what they had to do to stay true to their noble promise to rise above this city’s low-bar ethics.

The instrument is called "The Meese Measuring Stick.” And I know well how to calibrate it for today’s scandals because, frankly, I invented it, way back in 1984. It was named after Edwin Meese, after his nomination as President Reagan’s attorney general was delayed 13 months by Democrats who didn’t like his conservative politics but based their delays on overblown outrage over minor transgressions. (Mainly: Meese had paid no interest for 20 months on an unsecured $60,000 loan from a trust; and he recommended the head of the trust for a seat on a federal postal commission. It is a chump-change honorific that paid a mere $10,000 a year; yet Democrats blasted it as a payoff.)

So, I suggested that we needed a Meese Measuring Stick — a scale against which we could measure the true outrage of Washington scandals. To use it, just substitute a liberal’s name for Meese’s and ask: What would Democrats be saying if a liberal nominee had done precisely what Meese did? Today we’d use the yardstick by using the other side of it: all we’d have to do is change the name to a contemporary conservative who liberals love to demonize.

What would progressive Democrats be saying if, say, a Karl Rove or Dick Cheney had claimed he just didn’t know that a gift of a free car and driver was taxable income? Something every plant worker and barber knows that rich folks must be counted as income.

If I’d only thought to rush my Meese Measuring Stick over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, then a savvy adviser such as David Axelrod would have been able to ask his boss: Should we really give Tom Daschle a pass on something we would blast Rove or Cheney for having done? Daschle has always seemed a fine, honest, decent public servant. But surely it should have been clear that he couldn’t be nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services knowing his tax avoidance past, regardless of whether it was inadvertent or advertent. When the news broke, surely he should have been told to step aside.

Same goes for Treasury Secretary Geithner. Not that he and Daschle are not the best people for those jobs; they are. But the high standard Obama has set for himself — and for us all — requires that somehow we find someone who has not pocked, for years, money that ordinary taxpayers know should have been paid as taxes. Indeed, even Obama’s designated chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, reportedly also failed in her performance as a full payer of all taxes owed.

It was especially disappointing Tuesday to hear Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who seemed smart and able, sounding just like every other Washington flack when reporters asked him about Daschle’s decision to drop out. Gibbs dished all the hackneyed bits about not wanting to look back in his rear view mirror, not being a Monday morning quarterback, not going to deal in hypotheticals.

Here’s what President Obama and his team should have said — the truth: We screwed up. We set a high standard but failed to stick to it. We made exceptions for people we most admire — but double standards can no longer be the rule in Washington. The American people deserve better. We’ll do better.

Those who had the audacity to hope never expected their White House would be serving up Washingtonia-as-usual.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)