53 Brentwood Blog

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Second is exactly the wrong place to be.

So Timothy Geithner is now treasury secretary, and his success or failure at that job will soon leave his own tax problems as a forgotten footnote. Daschle, meanwhile, knows that for the rest of his life, and in his obituary, the key fact about him will be that he had to withdraw from a big government position because he didn’t pay his taxes. And, if anything, Geithner’s case is more egregious. The amounts involved are similar. But look at the differences. In his new job, Geithner is in charge of the Internal Revenue Service. Furthermore, Geithner broke a well-known and uncomplicated rule involving the way employees of the International Monetary Fund pay their Social Security taxes, whereas Daschle’s error was in the murky area of when a perk like a car and driver gets treated like taxable income. So what explains why Daschle had to withdraw and Geithner didn’t?

It could just be that Geithner is a better card player. He knew when to hold’em while Daschle was too quick to fold’em. Or it might be that Treasury secretary is a hotter job than secretary of health and human services at the moment. People are scared to death and wouldn’t care if Geithner had chopped his mother’s head off if he is in other respects the best qualified candidate. It might be that Geithner’s indiscretion really was about taxes, which aren’t all that interesting, whereas Daschle’s is actually about being Senate majority leader and then making $5 million over two years as an influence peddler. It’s only about taxes the way they got Al Capone on taxes.

But the main reason that Geithner survived while Daschle didn’t is that Daschle came second. Second is exactly the wrong place to be. The malefactor who comes first gets away with it because the issue is new and we’re not entirely sure how angry we are supposed to be about it. The one who comes fourth or fifth likely gets away with it because we’ve started to get bored with the story line and, anyway, our bloodlust has been satisfied. But the malefactor who comes second feels the full fury of our wrath.

Michael Kinsley


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