Once the Blago scandal broke, the Democrats had two choices. They could take the political wind out of the scandal’s sails by quietly distancing themselves from the mess and leaving the job of tearing the flesh off f Blagojevich’s body to the appropriate authorities. Or, alternatively, they could stage a prophylactic freakout and organize their own in-house pogrom, using the scandal to make an example of Blagojevich and cast themselves as repulsed by his style of corruption.
About the only strategy that wouldn’t work was to try to do both — and that’s exactly what the Democrats did. They were outfoxed by Blagojevich, who had been arrested in early December under highly entertaining circumstances — dragged out of his home at 6 a.m. in the traditional Slavic-gangster costume of turtleneck and Nike tracksuit, asking authorities, “Is this a joke?” Senate leaders like Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin originally picked the “make an example of Blago” strategy, vowing not to seat anyone nominated by the out-on-bail governor. But then Blago executed a brilliant move, nominating to Obama’s seat a 71-year-old, half-batty egomaniac named Roland Burris, the first black man elected to statewide office in Illinois.
It was hard not to see the evil humor in Blagojevich’s move. Burris is a hilariously-unsuitable candidate even by the extremely low standards of humanity observed in today’s Senate: Not only had he been chosen for office by the most shameless American political crook since Edwin Edwards, he is an over-the-top eccentric who refers to himself in the third person (“If there hadn’t been a Roland Burris, there would not have been a Barack Obama”) and who has already built for himself a mausoleum inscribed with the words TRAILBLAZER. Burris, moreover, pulled an Alexander Haig after his appointment, showing up in Washington on January 6th and brashly claiming office (“I am the junior senator according to every lawbook in the nation”) even as Reid and Durbin barred him from entering the Senate chambers.
Americans were thus treated to the spectacle of two white Democrats physically refusing to open the Senate doors for what would have been the body’s only-black senator. To make matters worse, the Democratic leadership hung its entire case for barring Burris from office on a technicality: His appointment, they insisted, had not been certified by the Illinois secretary of state. When the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Burris appointment was, in fact, legal, Reid and Durbin were left with a face full of omelet just weeks before Obama’s inauguration.
But instead of sticking to their position that the appointment was “tainted,” the Reid-Durbin axis, in typical Democratic Party fashion, blinked. On January 12th, Reid and Durbin announced that Burris was officially the senator-designate from Illinois and would be “accorded all the rights and privileges of a senator-elect.” In the space of just six days, Reid and Durbin managed to fracture a party that had been united in both its excitement over Obama’s inauguration and its disgust toward Blagojevich. In the process, they invited accusations of racism while handing a whopping political victory to a man who is just a few months away from spending the rest of his life playing basketball in the yard at Joliet. And they confirmed that in a fierce political fight, they can be counted on to run in five different directions at the first sign of trouble. All before Barack Obama had spent so much as a day in office.
To allow a craven scum eater like Rod Blagojevich to worm his way into the national political arena at precisely the moment when Barack Obama was supposed to begin restoring the great-power credibility America lost during the Bush years would be an almost unforgivable mistake. But that’s exactly what happened. Because Obama or no Obama, the Democrats are still the Democrats, and there still isn’t any political fight, it would seem, that they can’t find a way to lose.