POLITICS DECEMBER 16, 2008
WASHINGTON--Normally, we might be talking about President-elect Barack Obama's Monday news conference on energy and the environment.
But, no. Thanks to the Democratic governor with a wire-brush mop of hair, a crude mouth and what's alleged to be an inclination to put his state government up for sale, the political world's interest has drifted elsewhere.
Rod Blagojevich has been a godsend for Republicans who have been looking on helplessly as Obama's approval ratings climb into the stratosphere. Then came Blago's lively and profane performances, made public by Patrick Fitzgerald, the star federal prosecutor.
Suddenly, conservative columnists, bloggers and the Republican National Committee insisted that all other news was secondary to the burning issue of what Obama and his staff knew about any of this -- and never mind that Blagojevich used one of his favorite expletives to trash Obama for refusing to play ball. There were also dark hints that Obama could not possibly be squeaky clean, given his state's pay-to-play political culture.
As if this weren't bad enough for the Democrats, Blagojevich's troubles have endangered one of the party's safest U.S. Senate seats.
Responding to the horror that the governor might barter Obama's seat for campaign contributions, Sen. Richard Durbin quickly proposed that his fellow Democrat's successor be chosen not by appointment but through a special election.
It seemed like a good idea until it dawned on Democrats that Republicans might actually win a special election held in the midst of a scandal. Their fears deepened when Rep. Mark Kirk, a popular moderate Republican who represents Chicago's North Shore suburbs, announced his interest in the race.
It would be far better, Democrats realized, if Blagojevich were removed from office quickly so Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn could take over and name Obama's successor.
Quinn might logically choose Lisa Madigan, the state's popular attorney general. But there's a problem there, too. Knowledgeable Illinois Democrats say that Madigan would vastly prefer to be governor, a job her dad, state House Speaker Michael Madigan, would also like her to get. Yet if Quinn were to take over from Blagojevich, he might well build up his own popularity and thus block Lisa Madigan's ascension to the governorship.
No wonder, then, that Speaker Madigan was slower than many of his Democratic followers to move for Blagojevich's impeachment. But on Monday afternoon, he announced he was going full speed ahead, possibly because he had little choice. Lisa Madigan had already gone to court to try to remove Blagojevich from office or strip him of his powers. It's not clear the courts can do that, so Speaker Madigan's shift toward impeachment covered his party's bets.
And if things weren't complicated enough already, Quinn added another layer when he suggested on "Meet the Press" Sunday that if he became governor, he would appoint a senator -- but only temporarily. Eventually, Quinn said, the seat should be filled by a special election.
Even Blagojevich got in on the act, sending signals through the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday that he, too, might favor a special election. This might reduce pressure on him to resign immediately.
And Republicans, in the meantime, should forget about their effort to tar Obama by Blagojevichizing national politics. The two men just didn't like each other, and as one Chicago Democrat told me: "Barack has had as little to do with Blagojevich as is possible for a senator to have with a governor of his own party."
Moreover, Obama will not be unusual among Northern Democratic presidents -- he is the first since John F. Kennedy -- in staying clear of the less-appetizing aspects of his home state's politics. Franklin Roosevelt cleverly maneuvered around New York's Tammany Hall, and Kennedy carefully avoided the more unsavory shenanigans of Massachusetts politics.
Eventually, we will know more about conversations between Blagojevich and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now Obama's chief of staff. My guess is that the transcripts will demonstrate that Emanuel's love for an expletive is as abiding as the governor's -- and nothing more damning than that.
Obama's transition office stayed ahead of things on Monday by announcing it would release its review of all its contacts with Blagojevich, showing there had been no "inappropriate discussions." Its release was delayed until next week at Fitzgerald's request. The prosecutor needs to facilitate as much disclosure as he can, because the quicker all this comes out, the better. And then Obama can help the Democrats figure out how to save a Senate seat they should never have put at risk.