THE PLANK NOVEMBER 17, 2009
The news this weekend that the administration is considering moving up to 100 Guantanamo prisoners to a little-used facility in northwest Illinois makes you wonder about the political calculation involved in the decision. As regular readers of TNR will recall, local politics has basically killed the idea of relocating prisoners to the depressed town of Standish, Michigan, whose congressman, Republican Peter Hoekstra, has made opposing the transfer a central plank of his run for governor.
Will the rumored site in Thompson, Illinois, fare any better? I can see arguments in both directions. Start with the local member of congress, Republican Don Manzullo. At first glance, this would seem to create the same problem that arose in Standish--an opportunity for the opposition party to score some cheap points. And Manzullo has been out of the blocks quickly, telling the Quad City Times that “[t]he terrorists remaining at Guantanamo Bay are dangerous and brutal killers, many of whom were involved in the attacks on our nation. ... I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities.” But I actually think you want a Republican representing the district where the prisoners end up. Otherwise, if it's anything other than a safe Democratic seat, the Democratic incumbent is going to have a tough time defending it once the prisoners show up.
I'm guessing the problem in Standish was that Hoekstra is running for governor--giving him a big platform from which to tout the issue--not that he was a GOP member of Congress per se. Which raises a second consideration: a looming governors race. Here the situation doesn't look quite as promising. On the one hand, the governor is a Democrat, Pat Quinn. And of course it's the president's home state. So presumably Quinn won't block the decision if he can help it. On the other hand, Quinn is running for re-election next year (after having taken over from Blagojevich mid-term), so that could complicate the matter. Particularly since Quinn appears to have some approval-rating issues.
Fortunately, Illinois is much more Democratic than Michigan, which should give Quinn a bit more cushion than his counterpart on the other side of the lake. It also has a safely-ensconced Democratic senior senator in Dick Durbin (also a close ally of the president), so that won't be a problem. But there is the matter of the state's other seat, which temp-senator Roland Burris is slated to vacate after next year. Republicans appear to be coalescing around a strong candidate in the race--moderate Chicago-area congressman Mark Kirk. Add to that the fact that the leading Democratic candidate at this point is state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a close Obama ally who'd probably have a tough time distancing himself from the decision, and things could get tricky. Kirk, for one, certainly smells an opportunity. He's already fired off a letter to Obama warning that, "If your administration brings al-Qaida terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization.” Subtle that.