A Free Pass for the Indispensable Man

Jonah Goldberg

1/23/2009 10:57:23 AM - Jonah Goldberg

During the hothouse days of the presidential campaign, Joe Wurzelbacher became famous because he got Barack Obama to confess that he likes to spread the wealth around. Better known as Joe the Plumber, the Toledo, Ohio, laborer became the target of bottomless venom and scorn because he seemed like an obstacle to Obama's coronation.

One of the main talking points, particularly among left-wing bloggers, was that Wurzelbacher was a tax cheat because, it was revealed by ABC News, he had a tax lien of $1,182 for back Ohio state taxes. This fueled the argument that he was a fraud, his opinion didn't matter. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Fast-forward to today. Timothy Geithner, President Obama's choice to be the next treasury secretary, quite clearly tried to defraud the government of tens of thousands in payroll taxes while working at the International Monetary Fund. The IMF does not withhold such taxes but does compensate American employees who must pay them out of pocket. Geithner took the compensation -- which involves considerable paperwork -- but then simply pocketed the money.

His explanations for his alleged oversight don't pass the smell test. When the IRS busted him for his mistakes in 2003 and 2004, he decided to take advantage of the statute of limitations and not pay the thousands of dollars he also failed to pay in 2001 and 2002. That is, until he was nominated to become treasury secretary.

Obama defends Geithner, saying that his was a "common mistake," that it is embarrassing but happens all the time. My National Review colleague Byron York reports that, at least according to the World Bank, Geithner's "mistakes" are actually quite rare. Indeed, it's almost impossible to believe that the man didn't know exactly what he was doing given that he would have had to sign documents, disregard warnings and all in all turn his brain off to make the same "mistake" year after year. And keep in mind, Geithner is supposed to run the IRS. So maybe sloppiness isn't that great a defense anyway.

The bulk of Senate Republicans seem willing to green-light his appointment because, in the words of many, "he's too big to fail." Wall Street likes this guy and so does Obama. So, who cares if he breaks and bends the rules? Who cares that he took a child-care tax credit to send his kids to summer camp? He's the right man for the job, no one else can do it, he's the financial industry's man of the moment.

This strikes me as both offensively hypocritical and absurd. Obama has made much of Wall Street greed. He and his vice president talk about paying taxes like it is a holy sacrament. They both belittled Wurzelbacher for daring to suggest that the Democratic Party isn't much concerned with how the little guy can get ahead.

Heck, Obama and pretty much the entire Democratic party insist that they speak for the little guy. But it appears they fight for the big guys.

You would think this is a perfect moment for Republicans to stand on principle, particularly since their votes aren't needed to confirm Geithner. What they will tell you is that Geithner is the indispensable man and, in the words of South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham, "These are not the times to think in small political terms."

Never mind that there's nothing small about the belief that paying taxes in an honest fashion is a minimal requirement for the job of treasury secretary. What's absurd is that Geithner, who helped regulate Wall Street as head of the New York Fed, is the indispensable man now. He may indeed be qualified to be treasury secretary, but is he really the only man who can do the job? Really? Everyone said the same thing about Hank Paulson not long ago. How'd that work out?

I thought the Democrats believed the financial implosion was caused by arrogant and greedy men who thought the rules didn't apply to them because they were so important. I guess they didn't mean it.