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The Burris Burr

Much to the horror of Illinois politicians and Democrats everywhere, the Rod Blagojevich scandal continues to thrive. While President-elect Barack Obama seems to have largely escaped being embroiled in the investigation surrounding the embattled governor, the governor's political antics have national Democrats pulling their hair out.

Blagojevich's choice to fill Obama's old senate seat, former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris continued to make news today by showing up at the Senate to be sworn in only to be denied entry. Now all parties involved seem to be at a stalemate.

Burris makes a valid argument by saying that his appointment is legal and that the taint of the appointer should not cause one to punish the appointee. He is also correct that even though Blagojevich is under investigation, until he is impeached, he is still the governor and has the authority to fill any vacant senate seat in his state.

Of course, Senate Democrats have a vested interest in keeping Burris out of the Senate because they do not want to be seen politically as allowing politicians out on bail to make appointments to their chamber. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "culture of corruption" argument that she used against congressional Republicans in 2006 would immediately be turned against the Democrats. This would also fly in the face of President-elect Obama's message of "change," even though Obama himself expressed his disapproval of Burris's appointment. So if the Democrats block Burris, they could brag that they are willing to stand up to members of their own party and seize the good government mantle.

Blagojevich, Burris, and some of their political allies, such as Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, have raised the stakes by injecting race into the discussion. Rush recently warned Democratic senators not to "hang or lynch" Burris and said they should allow Burris to be sworn in because he would be the only "Black senator."

Democrats would be wise to ignore Rush's racially-charged threats because most people, including Blacks, are not thinking about this controversy in terms of race. They are probably more likely to think about it in terms of ethics. Shamelessly playing the race card only undermines Burris's own appointment and taints Black politicians of his (and Bobby Rush's) ilk. That could work to Barack Obama's advantage because the current cheapening of the issue of race stands in stark contrast to the effort Obama put into moving the nation beyond it during his presidential campaign.

Having said all that, despite Blagojevich's questionable ethics, he is a very shrewd politician who succeeded in placing Democrats in a box. There are no good options.

Burris is clearly not giving up his fight to become Illinois' junior senator, and Blagojevich's antics obviously show that he is going to do whatever he wants. So inactivity on behalf of Senate Democrats will only keep this story in the news, thus distracting Democrats from Obama's inauguration and his agenda.

Inactivity on behalf of the Democrats in Washington could also allow Burris to reframe the controversy (he's on television every day) and make the Democrats seem like the bad guys here (rather than just Blagojevich). Burris appears to have the law on his side, so the Democrats will have to find a good reason not to let him in. This could inject race into a controversy where it wasn't an issue to begin with. If Black voters begin to perceive this story as White senators keeping a Black senator out of their exclusive club, that could be a terrible public relations problem for the Democrats.

There has been some talk of a compromise in which Burris would be sworn in on the condition that he not run for reelection in 2010. But there is no way to enforce this, and Burris's electability is suspect.

The last thing Democrats want is a special election because that would put what should be a safe Democratic seat at risk. It is true that the Republican bench in Illinois is weak and disorganized (remember, Obama's 2004 opponent was the carpetbagging Alan Keyes). But Blagojevich is less popular than President Bush is, so voters may take their frustrations out on him by voting Republican.

Thus, it seems like the smartest thing Democrats could do politically is just accept Burris without conditions and put this story behind them. Democrats and Obama are already on record as being against Burris's appointment, and voters outside of Illinois will forget about Burris after Obama is sworn in. The Burris fiasco is not Obama's fault, and it's not Washington Democrats' fault. But if this story lingers, they risk being permanently associated.

If Democrats were to drop their resistance and seat Burris, they would be in for a few rough news cycles, but being able to get this story out of the headlines would allow them to focus on more important things. With the inauguration coming up and missiles raining down on Israel and Gaza, this story can easily be buried. There's also the possibility that Burris could turn out to be an effective senator. And if he's not, he could always be defeated by a stronger Democrat in the 2010 Illinois senate primary.

The political points have already been made and the public record is open for everyone to see. It's time for everyone to move on. Right now, though, it's the Senate Democrats who are preventing themselves from doing so.

4 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

I largely agree with your conclusions and laud your comments on the attempt to inject race into this situation. Burris should neither be seated nor rejected because of his race, and there's no law or rule the Senate has to have a black member — or a Hispanic, Italian, Irish or Japanese-American member either, for that matter.

My one disagreement centers on this:

"So if the Democrats block Burris, they could brag that they are willing to stand up to members of their own party and seize the good government mantle."

It's hard to make a case for being the good-government party when they're thumbing their collective nose at the rule of law. As simply as it can be put, the law is firmly on Burris' side, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, a lawyer, has to know that it is.

Furthermore, Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein today said it is, and that Burris should be seated.

On top of that, one news report I heard today said there is no actual Senate rule requiring the secretary of state's signature on the certification paper presented for membership.

Even if there was such a rule, Burris' relief would only be a writ of mandamus away, since the Illinois secretary of state has no lawful reason to refuse to sign.

Reid has become an embarrassment. Senate Democrats could easily do much better for a leader — and should.

King Politics said...

I see Reid as nincompoop here. His early insistence that he would seat "no one" Blagojevich nominated put him in this bind and pride keeps him from admitting the truth.

Anthony Palmer said...


I think that Reid could end up being Daschled in 2010. Republicans don't like him, and Democrats don't like him either. He's not tough enough, so Republicans walk all over him and Democrats don't rally behind him. He's not a confrontationist or a hardballer. Hillary Clinton would have been very good as the Senate majority leader, IMO. But I'd support Russ Feingold too.


Dr. King,

In politics, you should think two steps ahead (not just one). Reid seemed more preoccupied with getting a nice soundbyte than charting a politically wise course of action.

Thomas said...

If I was Harry Reid, I would have said nothing. Did nobody notice that blocking an African-American from entering a building is just not you want to do? I wish some of these Senate leaders would have read up on their civil rights history.

When Blago appointed Burris, I thought to myself that Blago is really an evil genius. He has effectively stuck a shiv into people who have disowned them and maybe them look like fools.

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