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Was Daschle Pushed? Or Was It His Call?

The conventional wisdom on the backstory of Tom Daschle's departure has already hardened. The administration cut him loose and told him to withdraw, if not explicitly then implicitly. Washington uber-networker Steve Clemons even has an item up about hostility between Daschle supporters and Rahm Emanuel, whom--in this telling--they blame for letting Daschle go without a fight.

All of that may be true. My network of sources isn't that uber and is mostly limited to policy types, whose view behind the scenes can be pretty narrow.

But the always well-sourced Marc Ambinder posits a different theory over at the Atlantic--that it was Daschle who pulled the plug, on his own and to the surprise of the Obama inner circle, out of embarassment and fear that he'd become a distraction. After noting that Daschle has spent much of the past two weeks in Boston, tending to a gravely ill brother, Marc writes:

Daschle is all South Dakota reserve, even in private. He is very sensitive to public opinion, and his public image has taken a major beating. He was portrayed as a tax delinquent, a guy who lived by a different set of standards. Before he decided to drop out, aides said that Daschle had not erected a steel barrier around him; he was sensitive to the public condemnation, and he was hurt by it. He probably concluded that he would not have been able to be as effective as he needed to be. 

The fact remains that until late last night, not a single senator, Republican or Democrat, came out against Daschle's confirmation. This morning, there was only one--Sen. Jim DeMint. Rumors abound that some Democrats, like Iowa's Tom Harkin, were preparing to announce their opposition, but those rumors seem to be unfounded; Harkin (according to Fox News) was weeping when he learned Daschle had withdrawn his name. Last night, two senior administration officials told me that Daschle's nomination was on track; one told me that VP Joe Biden wasn't so sure, and so he was making calls to his colleagues, just in case. Perhaps Daschle's nomination was in trouble, and because of a disjuncture in the White House, the depth of the situation was not realized.

For what it's worth--and, again, on a story like this it may not be worth much--one senior administration official suggested a similar explanation a little while ago. "I think this is one case where he really did pull out on his own," the official said. "We were ready to fight for him."

Of course, the two explanations--that highers-up hinted Daschle should go and that Daschle made the decision himself--are not inconsistent. But it's worth keeping in mind the possible ambiguity here, before we all assume major episodes of back-stabbing and internal rifts.

--Jonathan Cohn