Blagojevich and Burris: A Clever Circus Act

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, January 2, 2009

Political circuses just don't get any better than this -- unless you happen to care about a new administration taking power in the midst of national and international catastrophes.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich knows how to make life hell for his enemies, who now encompass almost everyone in the Democratic Party, including President-elect Barack Obama. Yet "almost everyone" is the operative phrase. Roland Burris, the veteran African American politician, discovered an affection for the embattled governor after Blagojevich appointed him to Obama's Senate seat Tuesday.

And even though the Senate's Democratic leaders, with Obama's support, said they would not seat any Blagojevich appointee, Burris refused to back down. "The appointment is legal," Burris told CNN on Wednesday. That slogan lacks the power of, say, "Change We Can Believe In," but it's true.

Rep. Bobby Rush entered the Racial Politics Hall of Fame on Tuesday when he asked reporters not to "hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer." The Chicago Democrat, who only recently said that Blagojevich did not have the standing to fill the seat, raised the stakes Wednesday on CBS by suggesting that if Democratic senators rejected Burris, they would risk comparisons with George Wallace or Bull Connor.

Rush is the one politician who has actually defeated Obama -- in a primary for Rush's House seat in 2000 -- and clearly doesn't mind making life difficult for a president-elect who once tried to deprive him of his job.

By now, fulminating against Blagojevich is beside the point. Blagojevich is playing Chicago-style hardball at the highest level. His opponents need to reply in kind.

The problem for Democrats is that by leaving the Senate appointment in Blagojevich's hands, the Illinois legislature gave the governor an explosive device that he was prepared to use without regard to collateral damage.

Even if Democrats in the Senate want to keep Burris out, a past Supreme Court decision suggests that Burris would have a fighting chance of holding his seat. And even if Blagojevich is impeached or convicted, the appointment still stands.

This leaves Democrats with two choices: a negotiated settlement or full-scale warfare.

The negotiated settlement would involve agreeing to seat Burris, in exchange for a promise from him not to seek election to the seat in 2010. The 71-year-old Burris, a former state attorney general who has lost several efforts to advance to higher office, could cap his career nicely. In principle, this would end Blagojevich's relevance to national politics and get him out of Obama's way.

But Republicans would be merciless about the taint that would attach to Burris's Senate vote. That's why Democrats have opted for warfare. This will inevitably involve an increasingly tough offensive against Burris himself, a challenge to his judgment in accepting Blagojevich's gift and a willingness on the part of Democrats to live without one of Illinois' Senate votes for a while.

Ultimately, Democrats might have to accede to Republican demands for a special election to fill the seat, but we may be way past that, now that Blagojevich has called the legislature's bluff.

The effort to undercut Burris began quietly on Tuesday night when Rep. Danny K. Davis told Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times that he had turned down an approach from Blagojevich's office to be named to the seat. Under the circumstances, said Davis, who is an African American, it "would be difficult to generate the trust level people would have to have in me." Davis says he suggested Burris to the governor's people and insists he supports him. But his public disclosure sent a different message to Burris: You were a fool to take this.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, one of the state's most popular politicians and also an African American, said he would not certify Burris's appointment. Burris is challenging White's move, and it's not clear that White has the power to block the appointment. But White's action underscored the limits of Blagojevich's effort to exploit racial solidarity.

Obama's patented approach to problems -- wait and think to see what develops before acting -- is the Democrats' best way out.

Blagojevich had one powerful weapon, his ability to appoint a senator. Now that he's used it, his arsenal is depleted. "The key," said one influential Chicago Democrat, "is to understand that Blagojevich really has very little power." By walking away from Burris, Democrats deprive themselves of a Senate vote for a bit and may even face litigation. That's still better than implicating themselves in Blagojevich's game.

Treating this appointment as a clever circus act makes more sense than taking it seriously.

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